Album Reviews

Sufjan Stevens – The BQE

(Asthmatic Kitty) UK release date: 19 October 2009

Sufjan Stevens - The BQE Even the coincidental aligning of the letters B, Q, and E sends this reviewer into fits of nostalgia. Numerous junkets on the infamous swath of serpentine concrete between Brooklyn and Queens during the knee-punching days of yesteryear paved the way for many fond reflections.

Several factors – the anticipation of seeing loved ones, adoration for New York City and the possibilities seemingly bursting from its skyline, and the forgiving view of a child’s eye – are responsible for inspiring only merriment during recollection of those trips. Kind hindsight’s musical counterpart is apparently the masterful songsmith Sufjan Stevens, who also succeeds in infusing copious 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, serial killer John Wayne Gacy and bone cancer as themes that have inspired Stevens to pen some magnificently beautiful indie pop/folk.

If finding redeemable qualities in a pothole-ridden, dilapidated monstrosity seems too onerous a task for the singer-songwriter, then you are surely unaware of his plans and accomplishments. No project is too daunting, no song title too long, and no extra bit of packaging too superfluous.

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

On hiatus are Stevens’s vocals, as well as his performing of any and every object capable of emitting an audible frequency. Instead, an orchestra of strings, flutes and brass do the talking, as Sufjan opts for Debussy over Iron And Wine, and Strauss over Stereolab (although the fluttering, orbiting woodwinds found floating in many of the selections ensure that a loose comparison to the Londoners is still appropriate).

Although the fantastic, Romantic-era symphony is ripe with traditional instrumentation, Stevens’s distinctive knack for heart-tugging melodic hooks and unmistakable quirkiness are the backbone, and their existence is proof that his characteristic style is not lost in the crossover. The Countenance Of Kings and SleepingInvader are but two of the many examples, on this album and those preceding it, of Sufjan’s ability to craft some of the most uniquely beautiful melodic sequences in modern music.

Weaving between lanes of standard, classical fare are random detours of eccentricity. At times those deviations, like the jazzy playfulness of Vince Guaraldi in Invisible Accidents, are welcome. Dream Sequence In Subi Circumnavigation, on the other hand, possesses enchanting vocals and strings, delicately oscillating between soothing and dissonant, that slip into a fishtail of jarring noise a la A Day In The Life or Mrs O’Leary’s Cow. Meanwhile, the haphazard foray into the Röyksopp-esque, mellow electronica of Traffic Shock, although successful at sustaining the melody of Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise, feels oddly out of place.

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

Other than a few unfortunate moments, and the lack of Stevens’s vocal input – one can’t help but miss his delicate voice and wistful wordplay – The BQE is a lushly extravagant score that merges quite easily into Sufjan’s grand catalogue. All who lend an ear to his opus will look upon the titular thoroughfare with a kinder eye, even if that view does not have the benefit of reminiscence.

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