Available on: Second Language Music LP
It’s hard to believe that it has taken ten years of releases for Cécile Schott to find her voice. That’s not to speak ill of her earlier run of records; her debut Everyone Alive Wants Answers was a joy, and her later instrument-heavy experiments were always crucial, but on The Weighing of the Heart we hear Schott’s actual vocals for the first time. It’s similarly difficult to believe that unlike so many others in her position, Schott manages to resist the temptation to embellish her words with reverb, autotune or overdrive. If The Weighing of the Heart shows one thing above all else, it’s Schott’s evolution and courage as an artist.
One would guess that the time between 2007’s Les Ondes Silencieuses and the recording of this latest record was not only long enough for Schott to gain confidence in her voice, but also to formulate a new sound in the process. The Weighing of the Heart is musically a leap forward, and while her records have always sparkled with a similar cohesive crystalline beauty, this is the first time Schott has been able to consolidate her weighty ideas so succinctly. And weighty they are – the title track directly references The Egyptian Book of the Dead, with the songs themselves taking their influence from the traditional folk of Central Asia, South America, Africa and Indonesia. In the wrong pair of hands this bizarre quagmire of concepts would most likely end up as a misjudged, lengthy mess, so quite how Schott emerges with forty minutes of economic, uncluttered and most importantly unique music is quite astounding.
Schott’s compositions have always been restrained, but in the past this has sometimes resulted in her songs sounding rather incomplete. Here the negative space is present for a reason, and it’s tempting to wonder if it’s her vocals that serve as the hitherto-omitted string that binds everything together. Schott treats her voice like an instrument, and not in the manner of the typical (and at this point tired) wordless coos that litter the experimental music environment, but in the placement of the words themselves. These are not the songs of a singer-songwriter – Schott’s carefully picked phrases are used sparingly and arise and drop into silence as if signalled by a conductor.
The album’s defining passage comes with ‘Moonlit Sky’ which blends clarinet, nylon-strung guitar, vocals and most stunningly, church organ. It is at this point that the record suddenly falls into focus; the influence of Arthur Russell and Moondog, the collision of ethnic folk music and the brave insertion of sacred themes. The song is put together in three distinct acts, and in just over five minutes Schott achieves a high point not only on the album but in her entire musical career.
Listening back to Everyone Alive Wants Answers it becomes very clear that on The Weighing of the Heart Schott is writing the same songs she always has. There is a distinct sense that this is an album that’s been stowed away in the back of her mind for years, and that what has changed in the last decade is that she has finally developed the ability and the peace of mind to finish what she started. A creative leap forward doesn’t always have to mean changing your entire identity, and few albums show that as lucidly as The Weighing of the Heart.