Monday, September 14, 2009

Hasn't Come Out Yet: Sufjan Stevens - The BQE

Release Date: October 20, 2009

The best part of Sufjan Stevens isn't his concepts, nor is it his remarkable ability to craft rich melodies with awkward instrumentation and odd rhythms (and it's definitely not his Christianity). What really makes this guy great is his integrity. I know, what a horrible word. Wielded by self-righteous taskmasters for centuries, the concept of integrity has been beaten down so far from its base that its strength is all but lost in the present age. But Sufjan ignores that. It's easy to ignore cynicism when you're a man or woman of integrity.

Sufjan Stevens is still the poster-boy for indie rock, and for all of the right reasons. He's still working when he wants, how he wants. Don't be surprised if we never get another state album ever again. Sufjan's inspiration seems to come in massive waves. His ambitions are so enormous, that even when all of the editing and overtime put in results in a failure, it's the best sounding failure imaginable.

The BQE is yet another project overrun with indie ambition. It's far from his best work, and it's not even his best instrumental album (that belongs to Enjoy Your Rabbit). But The BQE is a marvelous stab at modern classical music. Sufjan hinted at it on the Dark Was the Night compilation with a cover of Castenets' You Are the Blood. His fingers ran across the keys like Franz Liszt, and the fuzz and crackle that was heard on Enjoy Your Rabbit returned to Sufjan's arsenal for a massively ambitious single track.

There are times that The BQE sounds like its ripping off George Gershwin (not saying that's a bad thing), and other moments that are only tolerable in the realm of indie rock (Movement IV: Traffic Shock). By the end, the music doesn't quite satisfy the way his previous albums did. Perhaps this is why Sufjan has visual accompaniments in his live performance of The BQE.

But I'm okay with it. If Sufjan Stevens wants to try his hand at modern classical, he should. He was always too big for the world of indie rock anyway. He was a god in indie rock, whereas his reputation in the classical world is dwarfed by the likes of John Adams, Philip Glass and Glenn Branca. He's no longer a big fish in a little pond with The BQE, and it sounds like it.

It's wonderful to hear Sufjan Stevens in the context of classical music, because he suddenly doesn't sound so over-ambitious. The ocean of classical music is huge. It is the history of music that Sufjan is entering with The BQE. Whether or not he'll drown will be determined over the next few years. But what a great step, to leave the snark and pretentious slums of indie rock for black tuxedos and opera houses. When it comes down to it, he's still ridiculously talented, and will only grow from here.

The BQE is cinematic. It needs images to accompany it. So my hope for the next Sufjan project? A film score. He can easily pull off a Carter Burwell/Randy Newman combo if he wanted to.

But we'll never know what's next. That's what it really means when a person has integrity. To be incorruptible, honest; integrity refuses slavery. And Sufjan is a free artist. If he makes another state album, great. But don't count on it. All we can count on from Sufjan Stevens is an inspired work of art. And that's always something to look forward to.

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