Reviews Search

Sean McCann, "Puck"

cover imageThis latest release from Sean McCann picks up right where 2018's excellent Saccharine Scores left off, striking a lovely balance between stretched, blurred, and fragmented orchestral music and distracted, surreal snatches of spoken word. In the best way, McCann's recent work feels like eavesdropping on his subconconcious mind (though it is thankfully a subconscious mind with all of the boring bits edited out). Much like its predecessor, Puck is a series of warmly beautiful reveries swirling with mental detritus that feels meaningful, yet those impressions elude any connections or context that might illuminate what that meaning possibly could be. As a result, Puck is frequently quite moving in a profoundly ineffable way. McCann proves himself to be remarkably adept at mimicking how memory works, as we do not get to choose what lingers and what disappears: mundane scenes, fleeting impressions, and legitimately important moments all jumble together in a weird stew and there is no predicting what will bubble up to the surface next (or why). In lesser hands, an album in this vein would probably feel like a self-conscious attempt to blow my mind with wild surrealist juxtapositions, but McCann largely gets the tone and the execution exactly right: Puck is a beautifully casual, organic, fragile, and intimate album. It is quite possibly McCann's best as well.

Recital Program

It is very tempting to describe Puck as essentially Saccharine Scores, Vol. II, as the two albums are very similar stylistically and even feature some of the same source material.However, that glib description would not do justice to McCann's subtle and ingenious evolution over the last year, as Puck feels like an even deeper plunge into his subconsciousness and soul, blithely cannibalizing and recontextualizing older work into something compellingly novel and even more poignant.That is especially true of the album's first half, as the three-part "Folded Portraits" suite is primarily sourced from rehearsal recordings made for "Portraits of Friars" in Stockholm last year.Collaged into those recordings, however, are a number of other pieces ranging from 2018's "A Folded Rose" to snatches of much earlier recordings dating from as far back as 2008.In essence, McCann has seamlessly blurred together his solo home recordings with his recent ensemble compositions to weave something hauntingly elusive, shifting, and emotionally resonant. The album's scrawled, handwritten liner notes provides a loose road map to unraveling which earlier pieces surface in which new context, but the blurring of lines in these collages is so seamless that the lineage of any individual fragment is more or less irrelevant: all of those disparate threads decisively belong here now (it just took some of them many years to reach their proper destination).

While the opening "Nightfall" beautifully transforms from a haze of echoing voices and sensuously swelling strings to a swirling, richly textured crescendo of string loops and twinkling piano, the strongest pieces on the album are the more longform works "Broth" and "Puck."The former falls into the "Portraits of Friars"-derived suite and gradually blossoms from a delicate piano piece into a swooning, heavenly crescendo of massed strings and female voices.Further enhancing the experience are some very feral-sounding vocals from McCann himself, which he describes as "recordings of me gagging and yowling in my car."While that admittedly sounds jarring on paper, it is actually perversely beautiful in execution, as McCann weaves a gorgeous and immersive spell from a host of "false starts and stops and tests," yet makes it seem like all that beauty is a merely a veil concealing something far more ragged and primal.

"Puck," on the other hand, is a more text-based affair featuring Lia Mazzarri that seems primarily inspired by found texts about Fabergé eggs (as well as eggs in general).The underlying music, however, has earlier origins and McCann describes the new piece as "a mold growing on top of a quintet I wrote called 'Vilon.'"Like "Broth" before it though, it is essentially a lovely tour de force of McCann's production genius, as achingly gorgeous strings, voices, and tinkling pianos endlessly and organically cohere, dissolve, and re-cohere into new shapes.In fact, "Puck" may very well be a new high water mark for McCann's vision, as I cannot overstate how skillfully the various threads are woven together: it is like wandering through a maze of memories where a dozen different threads are constantly bleeding together or drifting off in compelling new directions.Normally, pieces built on such shifting sands do not work particularly well, but this one is a striking exception, as slow-moving string swells provide a grounding that precariously holds it all together.

While I have enjoyed quite a lot of McCann's work over the years, it is hard to see Puck as anything other than a culminating achievement where all of his strengths are finally aligned at once.I am also quite impressed at the amount of reflection and merciless self-critique that must have been necessary to get to this place.Every facet of this release has some significant perils and McCann somehow managed to nimbly avoid all of them: orchestral works can be too mannered and pretty, found/cut-up text experiments can be self-indulgent and soulless, and ambitiously multi-layered production feats can feel bloodless and overwrought.With Puck, however, those various pieces are intertwined in a way that feels natural, vulnerably human, and improbably unpredictable and spontaneous.I suspect that using older work as a canvas for newer work was the innovation that allowed all this to happen as it did, as revisiting "finished" recordings liberated McCann from any perfectionist tendencies he may had during the original composition: once something is already done, there is no pressure to get everything right anymore and the various elements can be playfully deconstructed until something new emerges naturally.As such, Puck’s album cover is quite a poetic and apt representation of the album’s aesthetic: if the egg is viewed as a stand-in for an actual Fabergé egg and that Fabergé egg represents McCann's meticulously crafted recent work, Puck is what results when the shattered fragments are lovingly glued back together into an imperfect yet even more beautiful new form.

Samples can be found here.