Album Review Sufjan Stevens - The BQE

Thankfully, Sufjan Stevens’ fans have come to expect anything from him.

Thankfully, Sufjan Stevens’ fans have come to expect anything from him at this point in the artist’s career, for his ‘new’ album ‘The BQE’ (which Stevens actually premiered on stage in 2007, complete with a 36 piece orchestra and five hula hoopers), is a delicate, wordless, orchestral ode to New York City’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a topic that many fans would easily laugh off or dismiss as pure whimsy. But for fans as dedicated and accepting as Stevens are, this album is another revelatory look inside the mind of a man that is never satisfied with a sound or a style defining him, one who continues to take chances and risks, and lets his muse take him wherever it leads, even if it’s down the rather bleak Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This album (which is commercially released with a DVD of the companion film, shot by Stevens himself, that ‘The BQE’ serves as the soundtrack for, as well as a comic book and a View Master reel) is meant to evoke and awaken images and sentiment inspired by the ordinary, common sights we encounter routinely, even something as drab as the highway the listener drives on everyday. It’s quite a beautiful work, and certainly not a cast-off, quirky diversion for Stevens while everyone waits patiently for the follow-up to Illinois.

The album opens with the orchestra in what sounds like full warm-up mode, seemingly easing onto the expressway and the inevitable chaos found within. It is a bit of a jarring start, with the rest of the album settling into more relaxed and sonically pleasurable environs. The movements all blend quite seamlessly into each other, creating a flowing, vigorous work that ultimately proves to be far more gorgeous than the dreary 13 miles of roadway that inspired it. The sonic flourishes that have peppered Stevens’ work in the past are subtly layered throughout the album, with a buoyant trumpet rising above the tranquil strings on ‘Movement II: Sleeping Invader’, and the strident techno beat of ‘Movement IV: Traffic Shock’ sounding a bit like a jittery drum and bass remix of the melody found in ‘Chicago’. But breaking these songs down individually is a bit disingenuous, since the work is meant to be listened to as a whole. And, even though this is a thoroughly modern album, there are strong classical elements threaded throughout the record, with unmistakable hints of Debussy, Ravel and Wagner heard at every turn.

Without Stevens’ vivid lyrics, some of the impact of his intricate music is lost amidst the swirling arrangements, but the songs themselves have a real dynamic, animated quality to them that certainly is only bound to be augmented by the film accompaniment. But when taken completely on its own, ‘The BQE’ is another brazen, confident musical statement by Stevens, one that is surely bound to cost him some fans whose patience might be wearing thin for him to continue his 50 States project (especially since Stevens has recently claimed ‘the whole premise was a joke’). But conventional releases and doing what people expect has never been part of Sufjan Stevens’ method, and, with ‘The BQE’, he has presented us with an album brimming with creativity and courage, which highlights his true talents, not only as a composer, but as a risk taker, who will ultimately take on and overcome any musical challenge presented to him, even one that involves writing a lovely, stirring suite about a grey, gridlocked highway.

 

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