Jacob Collier is very clever. An inspiration to many (myself included), the proto-pop prodigy is on the edges of something great. At least, that’s what reviews have been saying for years now. But nothing seems to change.
I once defined music as a fusion of technique and artistry. Collier is undoubtedly a ‘powerful musician’, with a technique to boot. But is he a good musician? He can do so much — but does he have anything to say?
Collier tends to rely on others’ lyrical skills and melodic ideas for his harmonic and rhythmical synthesis. He stands in the shadow of J. S. Bach, who, much like recent pop upstart Ed Sheeran, weaves ideas that are not his own into a tapestry whose structure is startlingly original. Meanwhile, Ludwig Van Beethoven, much like recent hip hop mastermind Kanye West, has many melodic ideas that underpin a harmonically loose structure. There are, I think, two types of musicians: technicians, and artists. Jacob Collier is more technical than artistic in his approach to music.
Can the two be integrated? The danger is losing technical perfection or artistic inspiration in pursuit of bare balance. So true balance relies on prioritising art, or technique, without staying with one for two long. Then, this cyclical priority can lead to balanced unity — breaking the divide between art and technique, Beethoven and Bach. Mozart approximates this mean, for instance. But Mozart swings, too — from his early wunderkind complexity to the lucid artistry of Requiem. To make Beethoven’s art possible, Mozart waters down the technical complexity of Bach. This is a dangerous game to play. The result was the death of classical music as it was known with the rise of untempered romanticism. What took its place?
In the twentieth century, baroque harmony was restored and fused with rhythm & blues, producing jazz music. Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ is often equated with J. S. Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ in its precision and erudition. Yesterday, when Jacob Collier was performing at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, after doing a masterclass for university students the day before, I was reminded of this tricky balance between scholarly interest and popular appeal. Jacob Collier himself struck this balance at moments of awe-inspiring brilliance and sheer entertainment, but left too much of the concert to steady filler. At moments, though, he echoed the thrills of jazz/pop fusion he has long pursued, but never quite reached.
On the album ‘Thriller’, soul singer Michael Jackson collaborated with jazz producer Quincy Jones to make the best-selling record of all time. The record is not the best-reviewed work of all time, but it is widely admired by fans, critics, and casual listeners and movers alike. The fruits of technique and artistry are evident more recently on Billie Eilish’s ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’, which draws on the technical proficiency of Eilish’s brother Finneas O’Connell — a Jacob Collier admirer.
But Collier’s concert and his ‘Djesse’ album cycle are not like this. They are rigorously contained in the box of technicality, created by the godlike hegemony of Collier himself over the cult of professional musicians. Between Jacob Collier’s scholarly technique and Billie Eilish’s popular artistry, there seems to be an empty space: the space of balance (Mozart’s balance), unity (Bach’s reason), and true synthesis (Beethoven, with reason). The space not just of efficient, commercial, or critically acclaimed music, but of true music, a synthesis of goodness and power. Thrill and theory aren’t enough for this synthesis, but they’re certainly good places to start.