It’s no surprise that in the hype-driven hipster world fans have fallen for the seemingly unique and whimsical stylings of Sufjan Stevens. While the singer-songwriter’s ethereal stage presence — Sufjan dons bedazzled wings at many of his shows — and wide-ranging use of instruments both vie for innovation, his showmanship falls under the weight of its own pretenses. Although raving fans are boldly calling Sufjan Stevens our generation’s sole musical genius, the musician may be more aptly described as one of its most overrated composers.
This doesn’t mean that Sufjan Stevens should be written off as a mediocre musician. One of his most noteworthy albums, Greetings from Michigan, is a meticulously crafted homage to his home state, and his latest record The BQE is a captivating orchestrated suite. Just as Sufjan describes the doomed plight of Detroit in Michigan, his new venture delves into the hardships of New York’s boroughs, specifically due to the poorly constructed Brooklyn-Queens expressway. Here Sufjan’s true talent shines through: his ability to compose simultaneously heart-wrenching yet uplifting ballads that portray the adversity of the cities dear to him.
The album, which was recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2007, comes with a long list of extras including a DVD of the performance, a 40-page comic book, photographs of urban chaos and a “stereoscopic 3-D Viewmaster® reel.” Although Sufjan is known for being ambitious (hell, the guy planned to write an album for each of the 50 states), all the extra fluff seems a bit excessive.
But all distractions tossed aside, The BQE is basically a 40-minute instrumental symphony, full of twists and turns as the sounds of the bustling city meld with dreamy xylophones and brass instruments. The BQE uses every instrument and electronic tinkering imaginable. The juxtaposition of jingle bells and synthesizers with flighty flutes and blaring trumpets is supposed to convey the fast-paced movement of city life, but it comes off as a jumbled, wonky mess.
The album begins with what feels like an overture of a 1950s Disney movie — the boasting of trumpets and whirlwind of wood-percussion gracefully flow into a romantic and sleepy melody that initially captivates listeners but falls flat due to the synthetic retro vibe that encompasses the beginning tracks. Not until the middle of the record does the album use any sort of compositional variety. But when it finally picks up, it catches listeners off guard. In “Interlude I,” Sufjan successfully creates a climatic shift within the album, disturbing the peace and leading the listener on with fantastical ballads.
In accompaniment to the album, the DVD depicts the urban chaos within New York’s boroughs, contrasting the vibrant architectures of Brooklyn and Queens with images of congested highway traffic. The footage, which uses slow-motion and still-screens, feels disconnected from the composer’s orchestra, despite the fact that Sufjan intended for a cohesive multimedia experience. While the music has a lively, frenzied quality, the film proves to be a stagnant and drawn-out effort, leaving the album feeling muddled by the extraneous side-project.
It seems rather unnecessary for Sufjan Stevens to create a sort of novelty album while fans await the long-overdue release of a follow-up to Illinois. Some may call it procrastination, but despite its flaws in continuity and awkward juxtaposition of sounds, the utter enormity of The BQE experience should be commended.