Album Reviews

Sufjan Stevens – The BQE

(Asthmatic Kitty) UK release date: 19 October 2009

Even the coincidental aligning of the letters B, Q, and E sendsthis reviewer into fits of nostalgia. Numerous junkets on theinfamous swath of serpentine concrete between Brooklyn and Queensduring the knee-punching days of yesteryear paved the way for manyfond reflections.

Several factors – the anticipation of seeing lovedones, adoration for New York City and the possibilities seeminglybursting from its skyline, and the forgiving view of a child’s eye -are responsible for inspiring only merriment during recollection ofthose trips. Kind hindsight’s musical counterpart is apparently themasterful songsmith Sufjan Stevens, who also succeeds in infusingcopious amounts of romanticism on a seemingly unworthy subject.

The focus of his latest work is but the tip of the morbid iceberg.The BQE can now join the ranks of Flint and Detroit, Michigan, serialkiller John Wayne Gacy and bone cancer as themes that have inspiredStevens to pen some magnificently beautiful indie pop/folk.

If finding redeemable qualities in a pothole-ridden, dilapidatedmonstrosity seems too onerous a task for the singer-songwriter, thenyou are surely unaware of his plans and accomplishments. No projectis too daunting, no song title toolong, and no extra bit of packaging too superfluous.

In fact, the sole task of exposing the hidden beauty in thenightmarish BQE did not satisfy Stevens’s lust for the well above andway beyond. The album is but the soundtrack for a film – naturally,shot by the man himself – on the highway and hula hoops, and ispackaged with goodies such as a comic book and stereoscopic 3-DViewmaster reel. And although the fundamentals of his songwriting -whimsical and quirky polyphony brought to life by a bevy of voices andinstruments – are intact, some basic elements of his sound have beenoverhauled.

On hiatus are Stevens’s vocals, as well as his performing of anyand every object capable of emitting an audible frequency. Instead,an orchestra of strings, flutes and brass do the talking, as Sufjanopts for Debussy over Iron & Wine, and Straussover Stereolab (although the fluttering, orbiting woodwindsfound floating in many of the selections ensure that a loosecomparison to the Londoners is still appropriate).

Although the fantastic, Romantic-era symphony is ripe withtraditional instrumentation, Stevens’s distinctive knack forheart-tugging melodic hooks and unmistakable quirkiness are thebackbone, and their existence is proof that his characteristic styleis not lost in the crossover. The Countenance Of Kings and SleepingInvader are but two of the many examples, on this album and thosepreceding it, of Sufjan’s ability to craft some of the most uniquelybeautiful melodic sequences in modern music.

Weaving between lanes of standard, classical fare are randomdetours of eccentricity. At times those deviations, like the jazzyplayfulness of Vince Guaraldi in Invisible Accidents, arewelcome. Dream Sequence In Subi Circumnavigation, on the other hand,possesses enchanting vocals and strings, delicately oscillatingbetween soothing and dissonant, that slip into a fishtail of jarringnoise a la A Day In The Life or Mrs O’Leary’s Cow. Meanwhile, thehaphazard foray into the R´┐Żyksopp-esque, mellow electronica ofTraffic Shock, although successful at sustaining the melody of LinearTableau With Intersecting Surprise, feels oddly out of place.

Perhaps the musical personification of an aged, decrepit highwaydeserves such cacophony and tangents. That doesn’t mean suchdiversions are necessarily enjoyable, though.

Other than a few unfortunate moments, and the lack of Stevens’svocal input – one can’t help but miss his delicate voice and wistfulwordplay – The BQE is a lushly extravagant score thatmerges quite easily into Sufjan’s grand catalogue. Allwho lend an ear to his opus will look upon the titular thoroughfarewith a kinder eye, even if that view does not have the benefit ofreminiscence.

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More on Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister – Planetarium
Sufjan Stevens @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens @ Royal Festival Hall, London