I was not sure quite what to expect with this collaboration, as Jim O'Rourke is quite an adept shape-shifter and Kassel Jaeger (Francoise Bonnet) is a bit of an unknown quantity as well. Also, many seemingly enticing pairings tend to feel like the polished and edited distillation of a single improv session. Wakes on Cerulean does not entirely elude that free-form and off-the-cuff territory, but it is a consistently rich and vibrant release nonetheless. More importantly, it sometimes shares a lot of stylistic common ground with O'Rourke’s classic I'm Happy And I'm Singing album, albeit one frequently embellished by an inventive host of field recordings. Cerulean probably errs a bit too much into genial burbling and restlessly shifting through motifs to quite attain canonical greatness itself, but it boasts enough striking passages to compensate for the lesser moments. With a bit more work, Cerulean probably could have surpassed I'm Happy and I'm Singing.
Although available digitally, Cerulean was primarily intended as a vinyl release, so the two side-long pieces here are very much shaped by the limitations of that format: they are roughly are the same length and time gets filled in some unexpected and unusual ways.
The first half opens with some evocative hollow clatterings that sound like they could have been recorded on a forlorn pier, but the piece soon blossoms into a warm and elegiac drone motif that sounds like church organist in a very tender and melancholy mood. That theme arguably forms the bedrock of the piece, but it is very easy to lose sight of it amidst the blizzard of twinkling and sputtering laptoppery that follows. The tone is certainly not harsh at all, but the constantly shifting nature of the foreground makes for an unpredictable and disorienting listen rather than a beautiful and immersive one (despite the initial leanings in that direction). Beauty is not absent, of course, yet it is often curdled by a stuttering obsessiveness and impatience or derailed by a shifting sense of place due to Jaeger's roving intrusions of textured field recordings. All of that admittedly feels like it was by design, but it feels "by design" in a way that suggests a lot of disparate ideas collaged into one amorphous piece with a lot of editing. To their credit, however, O'Rourke and Jaeger are smart enough to linger for a while when they hit upon something truly sublime. In fact, there is one extended passage that ranks among both artist's finest work: an undulating haze of swaying synth tones that gradually gives way to a heavenly and understated reverie enhanced by a pack of distantly howling wolves (or something else arguably wolf-like). Afterwards, unfortunately, the piece swells to an incredibly dense, flanging, and modular synth-heavy crescendo that sounds like an especially indulgent strain of free-form '70s space rock (that, of course, feels like another composition altogether).
The second half opens in far more subdued fashion, as gentle drones slowly sway and swirl together over some understated field recordings. It gradually masses into far more hallucinatory form, however, as the various sustained tones make shifting and uncomfortably dissonant harmonies with one another. Gradually though, a lovely new motif appears, as dreamy organ-like chords float over a deep pedal tone from O’Rourke's guitar and a bed of crackles, hisses, and quietly strangled electronics. Uncharacteristically, that theme sticks around for quite a long time, blossoming and deepening rather than being consumed by the next theme. Eventually, however, it does fade away to be replaced by an unrelated tapestry of bubbling synth arpeggio sweeps and eruptions of splashes, crunches, and scrapes for a final coda. The field recording component feels like an ingenious variation on the closing fireworks display of Jaeger's Zauberberg collaboration, but with actual fireworks being subversively replaced by everything but fireworks (probably). Unfortunately, it is not a particularly satisfying fanfare overall, as my ears are completely desensitized to candy-colored synth burbling these days and the rest of the piece was far more satisfying. The format probably deserves the brunt of the blame, as I suspect O'Rourke and Jaeger had a great 14-minute stretch of material and 17 minutes of space to fill. Sometimes problems like that lead to delightful experiments and sometimes they just lead to perplexing compositional decisions. This one falls into the latter category.
Ultimately, I like Wakes on Cerulean quite a lot, but albums of this nature always have a nagging element of exasperation to them as well. This release feels like a sketchbook full of great ideas rather than a great painting made from one of the more promising sketches-it would be a lot more impressive if O'Rourke and Jaeger had focused upon transforming the more beautiful passages into complete, fully formed pieces. Both halves of the album have a least one kernel of absolute brilliance that could have probably been shaped and expanded into a masterpiece. Instead, Wakes on Cerulean is merely a fitful flow of many ideas that occasionally gives way to striking vistas of very real inspiration. As such, Cerulean is a strong album that captures both artists at the peak of their respective powers, but the fruits of that union are not always presented optimally.