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Music Review: Sufjan Stevens — The BQE (CD/DVD)

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Indie pop wunderkind Sufjan Stevens has left fans waiting in eager anticipation for a follow-up to his critically lauded and massively successful 2005 record Illinois for a while now.

It’s not like he hasn’t released stuff — 2006 brought The Avalanche, a collection of Illinois outtakes, and Songs for Christmas, a box set of his previously recorded Christmas EPs. He’s contributed to a variety of compilation records, like a tribute to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and the latest Red Hot compilation, Dark Was the Night. This year, he’s given us a reworking of his 2001 electronic album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, performed by string quartet Osso and released as Run Rabbit Run. And of course, there’s The BQE, a work commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and originally performed in November 2007.

None of these really counts as an official follow-up indie/chamber pop/folk album like the ones that are the highlights of Stevens’ career, but you certainly can’t fault the guy for branching out artistically. He has been performing new songs live recently, while at the same time expressing doubt in the point of making music anymore. Sufjan, you’re a mystery.

Anyway, as far as The BQE goes, it may not be the kind of release fans are waiting for, but it’s a small triumph in its own. A breezy, effervescent classical composition based on the decrepit Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the instrumental album is a joy to listen to, and the experience is enhanced by the film that the album is essentially a soundtrack to.

Organized into seven movements, The BQE often recalls the orchestral pop sound that Stevens has made such good use of on previous albums. The fluttering strings and woodwinds on Movement III seem to ever be on the cusp of introducing Stevens’ quivering vocals or his oft-used broken harmonies. The vocals never come of course, but the Sufjan signature sound is unmistakable. Other movements feature electronic-centered melodies and bold brass sounds.

The film, which intersperses images of the BQE with a trio of hula hoopers known as the Hooper Heroes, is playful and often visually arresting. Shot on 8mm and 16mm film, the picture is stitched together from three separate film images to create an ultra-wide display. The film and its score coexist seamlessly — while both are strong in their own respective merits, experiencing the two together is clearly the point.

While relatively few were likely clamoring for a release of The BQE, it’s nice to see the project finally see the light of day, and for those more interested in Stevens’ pop music, a bonus track included at the end of the DVD features a familiar-sounding, but still impressive non-instrumental track.

While everyone may want another Illinois, the kind of artistic vision displayed on that record implies an artist behind it who’s not content with the status quo. It comes with the territory. The fact that he pursues the unexpected and perhaps, increasingly esoteric (although The BQE is plenty accessible, folks), shouldn’t be considered a shortcoming at all. It’s more likely that it means there’s a lot to look forward to.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • The Waybad

    I’m a little surprised this review hasn’t drawn a comparison with Koyaanisqatsi, the 1982 monumental film directed by Godfry Reggio with soundtrack masterfully provided by Philip Glass.

    The B.Q.E. seems almost like Sufjan’s attempt/homage at creating a visual and musical experience. I don’t think though, for one moment that this belittles Sufjan’s excellent work here as it’s a wonderful and personal take on the formula.

    I would be very surprised if he himself had not seen or heard of Koyaanisqatsi. If this is the case, it only augments his already well established artistic prowess.