Sufjan Stevens


It’s something of a shame that we lowly reviewers don’t get to see the performance about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for which this album is the soundtrack. We’re also missing essays, photographs and a comic book about the titular highway. But we are told the concept is in the sound, that the albums can work standalone… so we listen close, and try to imagine cars.

So everyone’s go-to guy for a bit of folk has stripped away vocals, pop structures and some of his signature warmth to present us with this set of instrumentals. The pieces go from gentle to grand, and ostensibly illustrate unseen things: the orchestra rattling with triangles in ‘Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes’ to pour magic on… something. A spasmodic trumpet over gradually rising and falling strings in ‘Movement II: Sleeping Invader’ blusters with that strange, patriotic promise associated with… something. In any case, it sounds enough like a musical interpretation of car horns to guess at that being the motive, though shorn of the visual accompaniment, it’s an at times vague and frustrating listen.

There’s a bit more to relish when melodic themes start to emerge and morph, such as in ‘Movement IV: Traffic Shock’ which surges through sonically from the BQE’s birth in the 30s to electronica mottled with flutes, sounding like any and every video game’s Futuristic Level, and the infectious pomp certainly makes for an enjoyable listen. But will it have the legs of say, Illinois, his 2005 album regarded by some as one of the finest of the decade? I mean, as a record it almost makes for a novelty look at classical music, the kind of rough, polyester impression you’d buy pre-made for Halloween. It’s therefore unlikely to cross over to contemporary classical aficionados, while at the same time risking a lack of appeal to anyone save those lucky enough to see the entire show in New York in 2007 – and perhaps hardcore collectors of Sufjanisms.

The writing of odes to places (whether countries, bus-stops or incredibly congested highways in Brooklyn) is always going to be an interesting form of creative expression. The frustration of The BQE, though, is a lack of illumination when it’s taken on musical terms alone. Perhaps the next State-themed album will allow Stevens’ lyricsm to create a broader, more vivid guide to place. For now, The BQE merely – and perhaps aptly – merely feels like part of a journey to somewhere else.

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