If there is one thing I’ve come to learn about Sufjan Stevens it’s that you must never expect what you believe you should expect, but rather brace yourself for the distinct possibility of something quite unexpected.
Certainly, of late, Stevens work has been a refreshing progression and a complete masterclass in diversity, without ever losing identity. I’ve written on this blog before about the importance of pushing yourself as an artist. Of attempting to work with new technologies, new instruments. Of stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself as a musician and I think, no matter what you think of Sufjan Stevens, he is one artist who is not afraid to test himself and embrace the tools at his disposal in this modern world.
The BQE, Stevens last release, was a completely lovely record but its importance was lost on many simply because the vocal element had been removed and possibly because it was, in truth, an ode to a road! That said, were you to turn it on and listen to it, it really is obviously the work of Stevens. The flowery orchestration, the over the top theatrics of the work couldn’t be anyone else, and I would argue that the same applies to this record. Put simply, I love this. Whilst I won’t argue that this is anywhere near his best work to date, it does contain some tunes right up there with anything he’s done previously.
Electronic beats are not something you’d associate with his previous work, granted. However, once again the songwriting on this record is simply stunning, something that should come as much of a surprise to those familiar with his work. Stevens creative output is really extraordinary actually when you think about it. ‘Come On Feel The Illinoise’ really was a gorgeous record. ‘The Avalanche’ – an out takes and B-sides record from the same sessions, was equally amazing. I think this totalled about 40 tunes in all. Incredible.
Personally, I’m delighted that he keeps pushing the boundaries, keeps challenging himself, keeps producing records that, whilst retaining the Sufjan Stevens(ness) actually incorporate new ideas, new ways of working, new technology to create something totally different from what came before. It’s basically Sufjan Stevens, just dressed up in a different and more interesting way than the last time out.
The record doesn’t start with anything to surprising or challenging as ‘Futile Devices’ sounds like it could have been taken straight from ‘Seven Swans’, but when ‘Too Much’ kicks in, it’s time for things to get interesting. As the album progresses, the flamboyant Stevens that I’ve grown to know and love is in full force. The theatrical nature of previous outings is in evidence without question. Sure, there might be a lot more clicks and bleeps and noise and weirdness, but essentially, this is just Sufjan Stevens at his most creative and exciting. For me, it’s a great change of pace. It’s not too confusing and it clearly retains his identity whilst placing a marker down as to where he can go next.
Let’s face facts. Radiohead did it. With Kid A, they fucked with their sound. At the time, many peoples gut reaction was to criticise or be confused as to why they never made another OK Computer. I expect there will be a lack of understanding about this record. I expect people will listen and be confused. For me, it’s perfectly clear. This is one of our generations most important and inspiring musicians pushing himself and challenging his established sound without losing his identity in the process. Not only do I admire this record, but I actually love it. I think it’s brilliant. It’s a complex, compelling listen and, if you give it time, you will be rewarded over an over again. I’d love to go through each track one by one but for me ‘I Want To Be Well’ and ‘Impossible Soul’ are stand outs.
Sufjan Stevens never seems to disappoint me. This, like his previous work, is dense, it’s complex and it’s intelligent and it leaves me wondering just where the man can go next. I can’t wait to find out. Check out his work here. Enjoy.