Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Return To: Sufjan Steven's Enjoy Your Rabbit

It's a perfect time to come back to this 2001 album. Released before anybody knew who Sufjan Stevens was, and before No Age and Animal Collective made experimental noise quasi-mainstream, Enjoy Your Rabbit came ahead of its time. It's perfect now because 2009 is a downright chaotic year. Almost everything seems uncertain. Economically, politically, artistically and generally, we have no idea what to expect anymore. And Enjoy Your Rabbit is the ideal soundtrack for this time of turmoil and confusion.

Since there will probably never be another release from Sufjan Stevens in album format again (I’m not holding my breath anymore), Enjoy Your Rabbit is something of a historic document. It reveals, at an early stage of Sufjan's musical career, distaste for orthodoxy. But a love for conceptualism.

14 tracks and stretching the full 80 minutes a CD can hold, each song is based on a year in the Chinese Zodiac. Our current year, 2009, is the year of the ox. On Enjoy Your Rabbit, this is probably the most accessible song of the bunch. How ironic, right? It runs an easily digestible four minutes, and carries enjoyably discernable melodies amidst the fuzzy, electronic rhythms. But to be sure, none of these songs really sound like the years they're named after. After all, how could Sufjan have known in 2001 that he should have made Year of the Ox sound a little more like Year of the Snake? He couldn't. And it wasn't his intention to do so either.

And that's part of the fun of this concept. As with most astrology, if it’s ambiguous enough you can convince people to believe it. Sufjan's musical astrology goes for the same effect. Under the right circumstances, 2008 is a dead-on Year of the Rat. And who knows, next year's perfect song could be Year of the Tiger. It all depends on what we're willing to admit is true for us within the abstract ambiguity (in the music). It’s a subjective album by nature.

In a way, this album is prophetic. It could be returned to every new year with refreshed senses, experienced as a totally different truth. Or if you refuse to accept it, then it's just a bunch of bullshit. And indeed, just as many claim astrology to be bullshit, many more will likely label Enjoy Your Rabbit as musical bullshit. Personally, I believe that this album is a creatively satisfying work of art. And possibly bullshit.

As a whole, the album is a hard bargain. At times, the noise becomes unbearable. The second to last song is over 13 minutes long, and isn't a very fun 13 minutes. And throughout the entire 80 minutes, there are plenty of winces. Harsh crackles attack the eardrums without warning. Monotonous buzzes drone on for longer than necessary.

But after experiencing a bat-shit year, it's easy to understand an album like Enjoy Your Rabbit. As life is riddled with its abstractions and mysteries, so Sufjan Stevens’ sole instrumental album about ongoing (but dependable) time constructs does intrigue and perplex the audience.

"What are we listening to?" is probably what you'll hear when you put this album on around other people. The proper response should be something like "what year is it?" The direction of time is never clear, we never know where it's leading us, but our clocks keep ticking anyway. But once we pass midnight, a whole new cycle of hours begin again. Once the Chinese Zodiac runs through its 14 years, it does it again, and again, and again. It's this paradox of certainty amidst misunderstanding that drives the concept of Enjoy Your Rabbit home.

Sufjan didn't specifically predict the future with Enjoy Your Rabbit, but he did pay a brilliant homage to the sinking feeling we get when we think about how unsure we are of the years to come. In No Country for Old Men, when we last see Llewelyn, he says “just waitin’ for what’s comin,” to which his responder offers: “yeah, but nobody ever sees that.” And so it is with Enjoy Your Rabbit. The album audibly sounds like a plethora of unsure outcomes, that are all sure to come.

Instrumental music is often called “soundtrack to your life” music. This is also the case for Enjoy Your Rabbit. But, “not in the sense that you mean.”

If you’re a control freak who needs to understand everything, you’ll hate this music. But if you can accept that ambiguity is the only real truth that is a part of everyone’s future (or if you enjoyed the ideas that drove No Country For Old Men), you’ll be able to appreciate this complex, noisy, conceptual genius-work from one of our generation’s most fascinating artists.

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