When Sufjan Stevens announced his intention to record an album each about all 50 of the States of America, a collective raised eyebrow could probably be sensed around the globe. Even given Stevens’ relative young age, you’re looking at two or three albums a year to achieve that goal – even Ryan Adams couldn’t achieve that, surely?
If Stevens is to make good on his promise, he’s certainly got a long way to go. As well as last year’s The Avalance (a collection of out-takes from the Illinois album), he’s now collaborated with close friend Rosie Thomas to produce her fourth album, These Friends Of Mine.
It’s an appropriate title to be sure – as well as the presence of Stevens, long-term friends of Thomas such as Denison Witmer, Damien Jurado and Josh Myers all lend a hand. It’s like an A-Z of modern Americana, with Thomas’ fragile, child-like falsetto holding court over some quite beautiful melodies.
Although it’s credited to Thomas, this could almost be Stevens’ New York record. Mostly recorded in a Brooklyn apartment with Stevens and Witmer, there are explicit nods to the Big Apple in songs like If This City Never Sleeps, All The Way To New York City and Much Further To Go.
Mostly, it’s gorgeous stuff. Thomas’ voice may be a slight, whispy thing, but it’s beautifully suited to the hushed backing that Stevens and Witmer give her. All The Way To New York City is a lovely tale of a couple leaving everything behind to follow their dreams in Manhattan, while Kite Song is a piano ballad about imagining flying away from troubles on the end of a kite. It may sound horribly twee, but it somehow works.
Much Farther To Go is possibly the album’s highlight, written as an ode to New York and romance, set to a devastatingly pretty melody and featuring Stevens and Witmer contributing some harmonic backing vocals to cosy effect. Almost as good is Say Hello, a brief but effective duet between Thomas and Stevens that’s guaranteed to warm the heart.
The only mis-step comes with the cover version of REM‘s The One I Love. Where the original was filled with bile and passion, Thomas’ is pretty and insubstaintial. Despite its title, The One I Love is really an anti-love song, with Stipe’s line of “another prop has occupied my time” not really being half as effective when delivered in a coy, sweet way. Much more successful is the rendition of Fleetwood Mac‘s Songbird, which Thomas manages to make her own.
These Friends Of Mine isn’t an album to dance around to or namedrop in order to look cool. It’s a record to curl up with and play quietly, particulary during those cold nights when you feel nothing’s quite right with the world. The only disappointment is that the running time is only 32 minutes long, but I suppose it’s always good to leave them wanting more. Thomas, Stevens and friends certainly do that.