Jacob Collier’s latest album, ‘Djesse Vol. 4’, is a whirlwind of bewildering production decisions. While the Grammy-winning music prodigy is clearly talented, the lack of focus on his most recent release creates a dissonant and unpleasant listening experience. Across the one hour and nine minute runtime Collier jumps from metal to latin pop, from gospel to EDM to sitar solos to jazz standards, never fully allowing a sound to develop. The end result is the musical equivalent of an Alex Grey painting: somehow both disorienting and bland. 

Collier got his start as a Youtuber who made viral covers of classic songs in which he harmonized with multiple versions of himself. He’s also known for his videos explaining big hits as well as livestreams about his own songs that display impressive Logic sessions of dozens of tracks. The four part album cycle that ‘Djesse Vol. 4’ concludes began in 2018 and includes ‘Djesse Vol. 3’, which garnered a Grammy Album of the Year Nomination. A serial collaborator, Collier stuffs the roster on this album with names like Shawn Mendes, Chris Martin, Stormzy, Johns Legend and Mayer, and Lizzy McAlpine. The size of the names show how successful Collier’s trajectory has been so far: he’s gone from making Youtube covers at home to giving TED Talks, opening for Herbie Hancock, and having a residency at MIT.

‘Djesse, Vol. 4’ opens with 100,000 Voices, a track which primes the listener for everything wrong with the album. To understand this track, one must first know Collier’s trademark is his live performances where he leads his audience in complicated harmonies which sound surprisingly good. Thousands of people with no music experience sounding like a trained chorus on the barest of instructions can be awe-inspiring. But instead of letting the power of the human voice – something Collier is a devout advocate of – guide the opening of the album, he chooses to add in his own vocals as well as some classic rock instrumentals. The result is something like a watered down Journey song, a neutered Baba O’Riley initially bolstered by impressive gang vocals which Collier washes out of the track. And then, for some reason, Collier descends into metal by the end of the song. What was the point of that? 

The stretch of songs which follow ‘100,000 Voices’ on the front half of the record are mostly uninspiring. The lower moments include ‘She Puts Sunshine’, an entirely overwhelming EDM-inspired pop track with borderline headache-inducing panning in the middle of the song (listen with headphones for the full effect). In the nicer moments, Collier truly does capture a sense of whimsicality. ‘Little Blue’, as well as tracks like ‘Summer Rain’ and ‘A Rock Somewhere’, sounds like something off a kids animated movie soundtrack. ‘Little Blue’ includes a feature from Brandi Carlile, who Collier recently appeared with on the Grammys stage to accompany Joni Mitchell’s performance of ‘Both Sides Now.’ Carlile’s vocals are a highlight, but it feels like the mixing prioritizes Collier’s complex harmonies instead (this is a theme throughout the album).

The exception to the generally softer tracks on the front half is ‘WELLLL’, which ranks among the worst on the record. This song begins with strong, heavy guitars, which are immediately interrupted by Collier’s egregious harmonies. Why Collier felt the need to double, triple, quadruple his vocals in the song is mystifying, except for the reason that perhaps his voice isn’t suited to this style of singing — his softer tone better fits his jazz stylings and piano ballads. He could have gotten another singer to join him, as he did with many tracks on this album. How about someone else who has the vocal chops to carry this song, like Remi Wolf? Oh wait, Remi Wolf actually is on this track, providing what feels like the eighth of a million harmonies. While the composition of this song may still be irritating, having Remi Wolf lead the vocals would make it slightly more listenable, but instead the mixing pretty much washes her out.

Part of what’s bothersome about ‘WELLLL’ – an issue which foreshadows the second half of the album – is Collier’s insistence on choosing a sound that’s different from anything he’s made before. The genre-hopping on this album gives the impression Collier is trying to prove he can shoehorn his immense knowledge of music theory into any genre. He’s now proved he can – the challenge is making it actually sound good. The harmonies in ‘WELLLL’ feel purposeless and onanistic.

The first half of ‘Djesse, Vol. 3’ is an excusably unexciting pop record with a few standout bad moments. The second half seems designed to give the listener whiplash, starting with ‘Mi Corazón’, a latin pop fusion song which features the artist Camilo. This track, which is among the catchier on the album, feels like traditional Jacobean vocal stylings over generic percussion until the odd synth break during the chorus. Like many of the tracks on this album, it feels as though Collier loses his faith in the concept of the song halfway through and then changes genre to justify the track. 

‘Mi Corazón’ is followed by ‘Witness Me’, Collier’s foray into Christian contemporary music. ‘Witness Me’, which has verses from Stormzy and Shawn Mendes, seems to take the undertones of faith present in some of Collier’s music and make them more explicit. Or at least, this song appears to be a worship song of a kind; viewed from another angle (that is, Mendes’s verse), it might be a fairly typical love song. This track reeks of the more flaccid parts of Christian contemporary songwriting. It’s worth mentioning here that Collier has not publicly made any commitment to any kind of religion. One wonders why, then, Collier seems to borrow from the musicality of Christian contemporary, a genre not often celebrated for its sound. As an artist who isn’t outwardly Christian it feels like a particularly random genre to dabble in in the middle of an album. 

The rest of the album is similarly muddled. ‘Never Gonna Be Alone’ features John Mayer and rising pop star Lizzy McAlpine, but Collier’s maximalist production style is not well suited for a duo of singer/songwriters. This song, like ‘Little Blue’, dilutes the features on a track which is already pretty watery to begin with. The cover of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is similar: the production feels overblown for what is traditionally a sparse ballad. John Legend and Tori Kelly’s vocals also don’t do any favors to this track (how many vocal runs does a soft ballad need?). ‘Over You’ has Coldplay’s Chris Martin and K-pop girl group aespa, a combination that’s as disharmonious as it sounds. Collier raps on ‘Over You’ for some godforsaken reason. It sounds like K-pop. It sounds like modern Coldplay. It’s a forgettable track that would probably be a little overworked for a Trollz movie soundtrack. 

‘Box of Stars, Pt. 1’ is similar to the opening of the album in that it attempts to bring inchoate parts into harmony but only succeeds in stringing together what sounds like several different songs on shuffle. This song has everything: a gospel choir, a dance beat, a Christian rapper, bass noodling, a pan flute solo, a morse code breakdown, French people. There are some genuinely fun moments on this track. Chika’s verse wouldn’t be too out of place on, say, a Charli XCX song. The beat is compelling. Yelle and Kanyi Mavi both bring the energy as well, but it’s hard to see how these things fit into the rest of the song, much less the rest of the album.   

By the time the listener gets to ‘Box of Stars, Pt. 2’, the a capella version of the THX sound effect is hardly surprising1. Whatever, the listener says. This might as well happen. Again, Collier taps into a children’s movie soundtrack vibe with the help of the Metropole Orkest and his mother, violinist and composer Suzy Collier. One wonders why Collier then throws 808s on the track. ‘Box of Stars, Pt. 2’ is a suite meant to encompass the strains from all the earlier Djesse albums. One Youtube commenter called it ‘the Avengers: Endgame of music’. Similar to Endgame, this song is meant for the hardcore fans, and is fairly opaque to the general population. Little can be said of this song that isn’t true of most of the tracks of the rest of the album: it’s a jumble of discordant sounds. As soon as the listener settles into one genre the song switches for seemingly no reason. It’s tiring. This whole listening experience is very tiring.

The album closes with the track ‘World O World’, which is far and away the best track. It also sounds like nothing else on the album. Collier chooses to play to his strengths and employs Oakwood University Aeolians to create a traditional choral arrangement. His grasp of music theory allows him to craft an impressive arrangement here which is simultaneously musically complex and moving. This is supposed to be the send off for the four album cycle, and it’s a great note to end on. It’s a shame Collier didn’t choose to make an album of just this sort of music. It’s clear he excels here. 

Collier’s technical ability has no emotional center. The issue with ‘Djesse, Vol. 4’ is that each decision seems to have been made practically at random; nothing flows logically or feels as though it’s in service of an actual idea. If the driving philosophy behind your songwriting is that of jamming as many advanced music theory techniques into a track as possible, it’s inevitable that the end result will sound soulless and disparate. It feels like Collier understands the ‘how’ behind playing microtones or super-ultra-hyper-mega Lydian scales without the ‘why’. 

To criticize an artist who is particularly focused on music innovation and pushing boundaries puts one at risk of sounding like a philistine. This is the defense many fans level against Collier’s critics: you just don’t know enough music theory to ‘get it’. Maybe so. But a better understanding of music theory wouldn’t explain away the flat guitars on WELLLL, or the random synth drops throughout the album, or the harmonies that have no logic within the song. And what’s more is that Collier has proved he can make music without those mistakes, like his Grammy-award winning cover of ‘Moon River’, or the jazz standards songs from earlier in the Djesse cycle. Instead, ‘Djesse, Vol. 4’ moves away from its roots, and the end result is one of the more disappointing records so far this year.

  1. *On a personal note, I showed this album to several friends over the course of reviewing it. One remarked that it sounded like ‘Bethel Music mixed with iPhone ringtones.’ I was shocked to find that Collier actually does have a song that appears to sample an iPhone chime from AOTY-nominated ‘Djesse Vol. 3’ (that song also inexplicably features Ty Dolla $ign singing with a ton of autotune). Another friend said that WELLLL sounded like the THX sound effect. Needless to say, I about jumped out of my chair when I heard Collier do the sound effect in the second to last song on the album.  ↩︎

One Response

  1. Maddo

    I have to say I really enjoyed this album – I haven’t absorbed much of Collier’s work over the years because of what you’ve highlighted in your review – however on this album I found the use of modulations, key changes, stylistic changes and same-song-multi-genre hops super engaging and made me want to listen more. It mat sound like “random” ideas but this highlights his compositional genius – when you have 100 layers of tracks, there not a lot of room to me random. This feels like well thought out, thoroughly mapped composition that is unafraid to take giant risks and for me it pays off. really enjoying this album, I hope he does more like it.