For its first album in 15 years, Cotton Mather takes on the I Ching
Cotton Mather’s Robert Harrison gets brownie points for ambition. Death Of The Cool (The Star Apple Kingdom) comprises 11 of the 64 songs he’s been writing in an extended fit of creativity inspired by the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination text—one tune per hexagram (or reading). Seriously.
“I stumbled upon this idea in 2009,” says Harrison, who first consulted the I Ching for artistic guidance while collaborating with singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins on a few songs that, sadly, she never used. “The specific guidance was about knowing what your talents are and exploiting them in the best way.”
It’s the tail end of South By Southwest 2016, an event Harrison knows all too well. His Austin, Texas, band was one of the more critically hyped acts at the 1998 conference, following the release of Cotton Mather’s four-track power-pop masterpiece, Kontiki. Over dinner at a superb Mexican joint tucked away in strip mall on the outskirts of downtown Austin, an enthused Harrison flits from subject to subject, consulting drummer Darin Murphy across the table every so often. “There are 20 finished tracks, and I’m into the writing and production on maybe 27 others,” says Harrison. “The goal is to hit the halfway mark this summer.”
“It always takes longer than you think it does, and our lives aren’t as simple as they used to be,” says Murphy. “But when Robert is ready to make music, we make time for him, because we know it’s going to be exciting—whatever it is.”
There’s a method to Harrison’s madness. Commentaries about each of the songs can be found at IchingSongs.com. He’s already posted explanations of a least six album tracks, along with four more tunes not on Death Of The Cool, including “The Cotton Mather Pledge”—based on I Ching hexagram number 13, “Fellowship With Men.”
Long-winded explanations would be of little consequence if Harrison’s skewed sense of humor (the album’s title is, in part, an inverted riff on Miles Davis’ classic Birth Of The Cool), and well-honed compositional sensibilities didn’t continue to fuel the Cotton Mather engine. Especially stunning are the extraterrestrial multipart harmonies of Harrison, Murphy and guitarist Whit Williams on “The Book Of Too Late Changes,” “Close To The Sun,” “The Land Of Flowers” and “The End Of DeWitt Finley.” All four songs are vintage Mather with a side of hazy surreality, their structural tinkerings and cerebral aspirations grounded in a classicist’s grasp of melody and dynamics.
Apparently, there remains some concern on Harrison’s part that the backstory might overwhelm the music.
“I don’t like those sort of pompous Pete Townshend narratives,” says Harrison. “I’m the kind of music fan who would hate this project. I’d want to punch me in the nose and say, ‘Just shut up and give me the fuckin’ songs.’”