Sufjan Stevens is one of the most fascinating artists working today. His life story contributes to one part of this enthrallment (an aspect that most fans are particularly attuned to). He consistently addresses personal experiences in his work, whether it’s through direct storytelling or atmospheric anecdotes about the places he’s lived. Even more intriguing is his position within the music industry and broader pop culture. Stevens has been able to hold true to his ambitions while maintaining an image in the mainstream. This is the man who collaborated on an experimental composition about the planets in the same year that he was nominated for an Oscar. Most fans know him only as an indie folk artist who dips his toes into alternative and electronic textures (his 2010 album The Age of Adz probably being the best known example). In reality, he is just as much an experimentalist as he is a folk artist. With new album Aporia, he works alongside Asthmatic Kitty Records co-founder Lowell Brams to make this distinction abundantly clear.
Aporia is a departure from Stevens’s previous records. The closest comparison would be 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, which blends experimental electronics with organic instrumentation. Aporia takes Stevens’s familiar natural orchestration and throws it out the window in favor of a true electronic sound. For the most part, the album is heavily influenced by new age music (though I wouldn’t call it a new age record, because it takes inspiration from ambient music). Aporia really can’t be called anything other than an electronic album. Artists like Steve Roach and Oneohtrix Point Never (particularly in his earlier work) appear to have had major influences on the texture and structure of the music. The biggest surprise on the record, however, is the relative lack of singing. We don’t hear Stevens’s voice until 18 songs deep into the album. With all this said, Aporia is not a complete departure for Stevens, as a lot of his melodic tendencies are still very much present. The tools and sounds used to achieve melodic structure are what’s new.
A large reason for this is Brams, who has been making experimental electronic music since the ’80s. His experience really shows on this record. He clearly constructs the atmospheric side of the record, which provides the perfect foundation for Stevens to build up more dynamic sounds. Brams maintains a level of restraint in the music that indicates an unparalleled degree of maturity. In a way, he acts as a guide for Stevens’s more ambitious ideas. This type of mentorship role isn’t all that surprising when you realize that Brams is Stevens’s stepfather. Yes, this is the same Lowell referenced in Stevens’s critically acclaimed 2015 album Carrie and Lowell. The two actually founded their record label Asthmatic Kitty together back in 1998. In fact, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to imagine that Brams was the one who got Stevens into experimental electronic music in the first place — just another reason why their chemistry is so captivating on Aporia.
There are many who would argue that context should not affect how we think about music, but it’s instances like this that suggest the contrary. Knowledge of the relationship between Stevens and Lowell adds an intimate, beautiful harmony to the listening experience. Throughout Aporia, one gets a sense of their dynamic. Neither of them are simply going through the motions. There is a deep love for the sound that they are crafting, which adds a level of emotion that is often missing from electronic records. In a day and age when collaborations have become highly commercialized, Aporia is a breath of fresh air from the sterility of the industry method, demonstrating the power of an authentic collaboration.