Sufjan Stevens’s newest album demonstrates the artist’s artistic freedom in its meandering themes and sounds.
The way the art “industry” tends to go, everyone starts out releasing only their best and greatest stuff in an effort to make their bread and make a name. Only when they’re a successful household name can they begin releasing anything they want with an earnest, positive wave of feedback from dedicated fans. Bob Dylan couldn’t have released 15 volumes of live bootleg recordings back in the ‘60s, but he can (and does) now. In much the same way, Sufjan Stevens couldn’t have released “Aporia” 15 years ago. He seems to have known this, and there’s no real indication that he ever intended to do so. But he released it this year.
Calling “Aporia” a venture of Stevens alone is somewhat unfair. It was actually released under Stevens’s name along with Lowell Brams, Stevens’s stepfather growing up, the same Lowell referenced in Stevens’s 2015 “Carrie & Lowell” who not only introduced the young Stevens to the music and the gear that would make his career a reality, but who also founded Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label under which all of Stevens’s music has been released thus far. The record also features performances from The National’s James Mcalister and, strangely, SUNN O)))’s keyboardist/trombonist Steve Moore, among a few others, though I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell without addressing the record’s media blurb. Despite this cast of characters behind the synths, the project is primarily a venture of Stevens and Brams.
I enjoy “Aporia,” and not just because I’m a maniac for Stevens’s music (2010’s “The Age of Adz” is quite literally my favorite record of all time). It does, however, subvert the general method through which a lot of people enjoy music (he said, without any statistics to back up his claim). That is, aesthetic distance: the ability, more or less, to enjoy a work of art on its own merits without having to get too close to the artist’s intentions or methodology (to oversimplify the concept). In fact, the record doesn’t subvert this maxim — it just exists, one way or the other — but I think in order to truly appreciate it the way Stevens and Brams do, the listener has to subvert that idea. This isn’t a terribly complex record (it can be frustratingly simple, in fact), but some context gives it a more memorable presence.
And there’s the catch: seeing this record the same way that Stevens and Brams do. As I alluded above, there’s no indication that Stevens ever intended for this project to really see the light of day. It was not recorded in a studio sometime last year and edited down for commercial success. In fact, it’s culled from impromptu jam seshes that Stevens and Brams shared at various junctures in the last decade. Brams recently announced his retirement from the music industry, and the general idea seems to be that this is his way of going out “with a bang.” Chiefly, though, this record is a symbolic father-son venture. While Stevens and Brams have collaborated on similar projects before (see Brams’s 2009 “Music for Insomnia”), this is the first time they’ve released something under both of their names. It’s a love letter to the music they both love and to each other.
It’s understandably difficult for the listener to inhabit the odd relationship between two perfect strangers in order to better appreciate their art. There’s no real reason to do it. There’s no payoff except a slightly greater appreciation for a middling album in Stevens’s discography. The conceit of this review is that I was willing to do that, and I do think I’ve gained a better appreciation for this record which has, so far, been receiving rather negative reviews, where Stevens’s music is used to the hallowed year-end lists. But this album wasn’t made for those lists. It wasn’t even made for you. This is a passion project through-and-through, just like last year’s “The Decalogue,” named for the Ten Commandments and consisting of 10 piano compositions and on which Stevens didn’t even perform (that would be Timo Andres at the bench). The compositions were from Stevens’s musical accompaniment to a 2017 avant-garde ballet. Even the most hardcore fans had difficulty parsing out any familiar Stevens sound in the idiosyncratic piano music, and the record didn’t do well critically as a result. It shows the mindset under which Stevens is now releasing music: his passion projects are coming through. Things that seem to interest only him or people like me, who will spend however much money each time to own it because it has his name on the cover. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s just where he is in his career right now. He doesn’t even care about my lukewarm defense of “Aporia,” and he doesn’t need to.
The record is best characterized through its prickly, electronic wisps of sound. Its release was billed as a modern “new age” recording, and many of the 21 tracks serve as buffers between the record’s more musically complex crescendos. Five or six of the tracks stand out in memory, and the rest serve as mere paths to get there.
The track titles are as unique as Stevens’s ever are: the jingly, 30-second “For Raymond Scott” references a grandfather of electronic music; “Matronymic,” a word referring to a name derived from one’s mother, could reference Stevens’s well-documented issues with his schizophrenic mother and the origin of his unique name, Sufjan; “The Red Desert” may extend these maternal references in its similarity to the title of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1965 film “Red Desert,” about the acute familial struggles of an Italian mother, or it could reference the Red Desert in Wyoming, the state where Asthmatic Kitty is based, or it could mean something else entirely. Another track, “Eudaimonia,” is named for a Greek word translating roughly to “blessedness” and features a harmonic synth swell in which the influence of Vangelis (famed composer of the “Blade Runner” soundtrack) rears its head, not for the first or last time in the record’s 42-minute runtime. The record’s closer, “The Lydian Ring,” is perhaps a reference to the Plato-surmised Ring of Gyges, a mythological artifact that can turn its wearer invisible. The song is pure musical confusion before ascending into Vangelis-esque harmony, and as quickly as it comes, it’s gone, and the record ends.
The five or six aforementioned highlights are as follows: “What It Takes” is one of the few songs that features a vocal choir and is probably Stevens’s most studio-complex work since “The Age of Adz”; “Agathon” (an Athenian tragedian) features a cool groove almost reminiscent of “old school” hip hop’s more ethereal whims (not to mention a noodly little synth solo); “Misology” (meaning the hatred of reason and discourse) is one of the spots on the record where the synths descend into heavy darkness and acts as a sort of intro to “Afterworld Alliance,” in which tight keys drift over an echoey, overcooked beat; this theme of minor-key darkness continues until “Glorious You,” perhaps a reference to God from the ever-pious Stevens, which sees a partial parting of the clouds, as it were; “The Runaround” is the musical core and apotheosis of the project, featuring an unhurried buildup, some electric swaying, then a sudden interpolation of Stevens’s vocals, just two verses, but the only clear vocals in the entire record; “Climb That Mountain” and “Captain Praxis” continue this strong point, the former featuring more choir-singing over a snare beat and the latter mixing apparent influences from video game soundtracks and bass lines from ‘80s hits.
If it isn’t clear by now, the record is primarily instrumental. The human voice acts sometimes as a melodic instrument of its own, but clear vocals appear only once (in the aforementioned “The Runaround”). Stevens is no stranger to heavily electronic work. “The Age of Adz” is notable for its incredibly “glitchy” production and marked a significant departure from 2005’s folky “Illinois,” but it wasn’t unprecedented. Stevens’s sophomore release, 2001’s “Enjoy Your Rabbit,” is a near 80-minute electronic opera, replete with glitches and crescendos and references to the Chinese Zodiac. It is by no means easy listening and is not usually a favorite in any Stevens fan’s ranking of his music. It’s also more interesting listening than “Aporia,” and therein lies the main flaw in the latter.
“Aporia,” while certainly an interesting project and an emotional story of paternal love if one defies aesthetic distance, is far from musically interesting. There are the high points I have mentioned above, but that only covers about a third of the record’s songs (not including my rundown of the unique names). As I’ve said, most of the songs here are mere buffers between these moments of musical complexity. It’s a quiet, meditative album with few reasons to dance or obvious moments of catharsis (except, I’d argue, for Stevens’s vocal interpolation in “The Runaround,” which is one of his best songs in years). This was never destined to be a hit, and it’s difficult to love. The only way to really like it is to give it more attention than most people usually do a new release. Who has time to read about a record’s conception? Who has time to look up the definitions of the words in each title? Who has time to sit still for 42 minutes and just get lost in the quasi-ambient nature of the music? Very few, though its release during a time of international isolation is somewhat serendipitous.
“Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind. Listen to the birds. And don’t hate nobody.” So reads a sort of epigraph to the record on its rear cover, attributed to jazz composer Eubie Blake. It’s an interesting way to supplement an album that has a fair amount of musical darkness. The title, too, is interesting: the media blurb defines “Aporia” as “an irresolvable contradiction,” while on his own blog Stevens defined it as “the state of being at a loss.” Neither is a happy album title, and one wonders why Stevens would name such a passionate project with his stepfather after such a confusing, ambivalent word. The themes of the record, too, are unclear at times: Christian theology and Greek antiquity butt heads, and there are no lyrics to help us parse things out. A dedication just under the Blake quote, however, reveals the bread and butter of the release: “In memory: Michael Brams and Carrie M.,” the former presumably being a relation of Brams’s, perhaps his father, and the latter most likely being Stevens’s late mother, whom he has already immortalized in “Carrie & Lowell.” This album, confusing and difficult to appreciate as it may be, is a family matter at heart. It was released and sold across the world, but it wasn’t really meant for us.
Imagine, instead, that you’re a creep, standing and shivering outside the Stevens household on a cold winter’s night, looking in on a tender, firelit scene of fatherly love and musical awakening. It takes on a new, pleasant shade, even if you can barely understand it.