Since Sufjan Stevens became the poster boy for a certain kind of American indie fan, there’s been no little speculation about what grand project he’s going to embark on next: which State might be worked over so fastidiously; whether the album about birds might ever come to fruition.
In this context, his first album since 2006’s “Illinois” appendix, “The Avalanche”, is a slight anti-climax, in that “The BQE” was first premiered nearly two years ago at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. Typical of Stevens, it’s an extended suite which is very geographically specific – a majestically orchestrated piece designed to evoke the 12 and a half mile-long expressway connecting Brooklyn and Queen’s.
“The BQE” is symphonic in concept and scale, and Stevens’ voice is nowhere to be found amidst the massed horns and strings. Anyone looking for the intimacy of his previous work may be disappointed, but there are still plenty of familiar tropes amongst these 13 movements and interludes.
Stevens’ long-obvious love of Phillip Glass and systems music gets an extended workout for a start, though he’s canny enough to avoid the obvious trick of locking into some hyperspeed classical motorik. Instead, the repetitions are often more languid, and mixed in with some very romantic flourishes. After a couple of listens, the standout track here appears to be “Movement II: Sleeping Invader”, an overwhelmingly beautiful series of graceful string progressions overlaid by chattering horn parts.
Those shrill horn voluntaries that he also favours are pretty frequently used, from the “Introductory Fanfare For The Hooper Heroes” on. The fanfare, though, only comes after “Prelude On The Explanade”, tense ambient noise that provoked comparisons with Eno & Fripp’s “No Pussyfooting” here.
Often, “The BQE” feels like Stevens has isolated the more classical passages from his previous work, and used them as jumping-off points for new adventures. So “Interlude I: Dream Sequence In Subi Circumnavigation” begins with familiar wordless harmonies before swelling into sturm und drang orchestral bombast.
And the lovely “Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise” feels like the intricate skeleton of a song like “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”, which keeps building until it segues into “Movement IV: Traffic”, which pits the orchestra against some elastic electronica reminiscent of mid ‘90s Aphex Twin. A partial return to the textures of “Enjoy Your Rabbit”, maybe? That album’s evidently on Stevens’ mind, since his next slated release involves new versions of those songs rearranged for string quartet and retitled “Run Rabbit Run”.
In turn, the techno dissolves into “Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns”, which eventually transforms into a big band vamp with faint echoes of Neal Hefti’s Batman theme. Again and again, Stevens appears to be throwing everything at the wall and, against the odds, watching most of it stick. It’s a maximalist approach which many will probably dismiss as pretentious or over-ambitious (or, from the other side, as modern composition for indie dilettantes). From here, it sounds like bright, rich, expansive, evocative, playful and stirring music. What next, though?