How I Started Seeing New Colours
In 2018, Cole Cuchna, a music journalist, released a podcast named Dissect. In Cuchna’s words, Dissect is “long-form musical analysis broken into short, digestible episodes.” The show dedicates each season to a musical album and each episode (roughly 30-45 minutes) in a season analyzes a different song on that album, note by note, line by line.
This podcast changed my life.
Season after season, Cuchna would conduct painstaking research to contextualize each song for the listener. What originally felt like a randomly-ordered compilation of great songs began to feel extremely intentional, each song a necessary chapter in the story of the album, meticulously crafted to advance a broader album narrative. This, coupled with real events from the artist’s life, made the intentionality behind note and lyric undeniable. Cuchna would take a song I’d heard dozens of times and convince me there’s even more there to appreciate. His analysis could seem like a stretch in a vacuum, but through supporting evidence like an established album narrative and an artist’s interview clippings, Cuchna’s interpretations felt more and more feasible. Probable, even.
Of course, Cuchna is taking the same skills that high school language teachers around the world are trying to instill in their uninterested, hormonal students. Take source material and develop justifiable theories regarding the writer’s intent. There are no wrong answers, only poorly supported arguments. But unfortunately, no student cares about the high school source material. They don’t care about the novels, the writers, or the sociocultural climates in which they were written. That’s where Cuchna is innovative. He takes music that generations of people know well and love, and blows his listeners’ minds with facts and well-supported arguments. It feels like he’s letting you in on a secret, each and every episode.
Dissect is now on season 11 and has analyzed albums from Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Tyler the Creator, Lauryn Hill, and even Radiohead. Somewhere along this listening journey, I learned decisions by artists of a certain caliber are never really random, even if I don’t initially understand. Each lyric and musical choice is purposeful, helping the artist actualize a grander vision.
Dissect showed me new pieces to puzzles I thought were complete, painting a vision more complex than I had ever imagined. It was like waking up one morning and seeing a colour I’d never seen before. Once I knew this deeper layer existed, I began looking for it everywhere. I re-listened to my favourite albums with renewed interest and attention. What other nuggets of artistic brilliance eluded me, waiting in plain sight to be discovered?
Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou created a video essay series on YouTube a few years ago called Every Frame a Painting. In each episode, they chose a film form (i.e., cinematography style) and explained it through the work of a single film director who invented or mastered the form. I was never a movie junkie, but no matter the artform, I can appreciate legendary craftmanship. Ramos and Zhou would show, through examples, how a director could use angles or colour or spacing to precisely craft a shot to evoke a specific feeling. The uninitiated movie-going won’t have the vocabulary or the eye to recognize the techniques at play, but once pointed out, they will start seeing the same tools used over and over again. More puzzle pieces. Layers peeled back.
Shows like Dissect and Every Frame a Painting show fans like myself how the experience of consuming art we’ve known and loved is enriched when the artist’s full intention and tactics are properly explained. My appreciation deepens, as does the impression the art leaves on me. But the real gift here is more profound. Akin to “teaching us to fish”, these shows help us train our own critical eye so we can apply the same level of critical analysis to art in our own lives, independently discovering connections and deepening our understanding and appreciation.
The explosive excitement in developing a new theory or discovering a new layer to art we love is addictive. Any piece of art that seems opaque and unclear is an X on a treasure map, waiting to be understood. And there is no shortage of art half-understood, be it musical albums, paintings, movies, or novels. Artists are always imbuing their creations with multi-dimensionality and metaphor in an attempt to make something meaningful and respected. Great artistry surrounds us, waiting to be discovered, re-discovered, and then discovered again.
Over the last few years, after observing Dissect critically analyze albums season after season, I myself have found other musical albums I believe to have additional layers waiting to be discovered. Connections and theories deepen my appreciation and make me feel like I’m seeing new colours. It’s either all bogus or brilliant—I can’t decide which. Perhaps in the future, you’ll open up this newsletter and find a critical analysis of some hip-hop or R&B album. Hopefully this issue explains the spirit in which that will be written.
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