For anyone who has followed Sufjan Stevens’ career until now, you’ll be used to expecting the unexpected when it comes to new projects. In 2015, after a half-decade in the wilderness, he blessed us with the highly personal instant-classic ‘Carrie & Lowell’, a collection of folk compositions that documented his childhood through both rose-tinted and icy cold lenses.
Previously, he had delivered everything else imaginable, from meditations on a major city transport system (2009’s ‘The BQE’), a song cycle based around the years of the Chinese alphabet (2001’s ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’) and two albums that brought to life the various elements of a twenty-fifth of America’s United States (2004’s ‘Michigan’ and 2005’s ‘Illinois’), the latter of which perhaps remains his most widely-popular and celebrated release. It should come as no surprise then, considering the myriad creative left-field turns that he’s taken (and us with him) head-first, that his latest album represents a further departure for the enigmatic Stevens. With his step-father and label co-founder Lowell Brams by his side, he has created a sort of mini-electronic opera on ‘Aporia’, a record comprising 21 tracks of nearly-voiceless, new-age compositions, manufactured from their own jam sessions.
In the record’s announcement, Stevens described it in typically offbeat fashion: “90% percent of it is absolutely horrible, but if you’re just lucky enough, ten percent is magic. I just kept pulling out these little magical moments”. For someone of Stevens’ almost infamous kookiness, that statement deserves the ample pinch(es) of salt with which it was initially taken. A record that crawls towards a 42-minute run time from a man who, less than a decade ago, ended his sixth studio album ‘The Age Of Adz’ with the 25-minute-long ‘Impossible Soul’ might at first appear to sell his talents short and scream “indulgent passion project”. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that ‘Aporia’ is actually really good. A bookended narrative that sees the apprentice (Stevens) become the master, its musical narrative tells the story of the Stevens/Brams mentorship, the project does certainly have its duller, more meandering moments – see the entire block of tracks between ‘Palinodes’ and ‘Ataraxia’ – but outside of these it blossoms into something evocative and emotionally gripping.
At its best – ‘Agathon’, ‘Afterworld Alliance’, ‘Captain Praxis’ – the tracks are about as essential as any new-age music one could wish to hear, a feeling that grows stronger upon re-listens. ‘Aporia’ certainly asks a degree of patience from its listener – the kind often reserved for previously-existing fans of Stevens – to realise its full potential, but over the last few decades the number of listeners able to give this patience has grown exponentially, just in time for Stevens to push boundaries that bit further once again.
Words: Michael Watkins
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