Unlike other pop artists who've branched out into classical, this feels very natural.
Will Dean 2009-10-20
Sufjan Stevens is one smart cookie. You could hear it in the arrangements of albums like Illinois and Michigan, you can tell it from his witty and idiosyncratic overlong song titles, and you can witness it via his grand ambitions (namely his stalled project to record an album about every US state).
But if you need proof of his odd genius, then what about this? Stevens has recorded a classical/techno/indie epic about a bit of tarmac. And he's done it beautifully.
The BQE was originally a commission from the Brooklyn Academy of Music – Stevens was tasked with creating an audio-visual spectacular for a 2,000-seater hall – but, as with much of the man’s work, it grew upon itself and spiralled beyond its original concept and is now released as a DVD/CD/comic book spectacular. Like his lovingly assembled 2006 Christmas box set, it feels like so much love has gone into it that it'd be mean not to buy it.
This is the story of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Well actually, it is when you combine it with the other media. This is actually an abstract from Stevens’ oeuvre, but so strong is the music that you get the picture regardless. It's not really about a road, but we can still go on a journey with one of America’s greatest contemporary musicians.
At 40 minutes and comprised of seven movements, three interludes and pre- and post-ludes, this is a proper composition – no vocals, full orchestra, so get your ears primed and brain concentrating. And, unlike other pop artists who've branched out into classical – here’s looking at you, Macca – this feels like a very natural step. It’s a record that even casual listeners to Stevens could attribute to him, even minus vocals. There are moments throughout – especially the wing-fluttering woodwind and strings that punctuate the entire record – that are quintessentially him, but this is still miles away from records like Seven Swans and his two State records.
It's no wonder that Stevens has recently pondered the worth of creativity during the death-age for physical music – he’s made nine records since 2000 and explored and expanded his skill set beyond many of his peers. Where does he go from here if the album is dying? You do wonder, but whichever junction he turns off at, it's bound to be fascinating.