The BQE – Sufjan Stevens

The BQE

Sufjan Stevens

2009

Asthmatic Kitty

 

Indie musician Sufjan Stevens has definitely been attracted to some extremely grandiose ideas.  He’s had an electronic album based off of the Chinese Zodiac.  He’s announced that he’ll release an album based off of each of the fifty states (though so far, we’ve only seen three.  And one was only outtakes from Illinois, so two).  And in 2007, Stevens wrote and performed an orchestra symphonic piece completely about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  Which brings us The BQE, Steven’s new album (or as he puts it, “the original motion picture soundtrack” because it is actually a strange multimedia presentation) released this past Tuesday.

The set comes with a CD of the orchestra tracks, a DVD of the film (which admittedly haven’t watched yet), a 3D View-Master Reel (Really? Was this necessary?), and a booklet with an essay by Stevens.  Being a multimedia release, Stevens takes his theatrical attitude and puts it into written word.  Really, I can honestly say this essay is the most interesting essay you will about the Expressway.  He uses his verbose articulation to express not just how the Expressway has been a source of inspiration for him, but also some history about it.  Really, the essay is a little too long and most of it is just metaphors and similies (he compares it to: a Rubik’s cube, Legos, a tail of a dragon, an escalator, a chain link fence, a hangnail, a crossword puzzle, and others.  This is all in one paragraph, by the way.).  And the English major in me wants to scrutinize his essay for a thesis and ramblings.  But it is what Sufjan does best: rhapsodizing endlessly on the subject of his fascination.  And it’s completely respectable.

The CD is the soundtrack to the DVD, but really, with Stevens being such a wonderful musician, who is going to buy the package for the DVD?  And so, I move on to the music now.  The album is largely classical (I’m using classical in the loosest interpretation of the word, being a modern symphonic piece done mainly by an orchestra).  For a subject that most people would be excessively bored about, Stevens composes a really interesting forty minutes of instrumental music.

The first track, “Prelude on the Esplande” sounds very like the opening to Sgt. Pepper’s with the orchestra tuning up.  Which isn’t what they’re doing here, it just sounds like that.  Also, it can be construed (by me, at the very least) as what traffic sounds like.  But what it definitely is, is a slow build-up to the second track.

“Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes” is very Sufjan Stevens-esque.  You can hear how this would fit perfectly on Illinois with its opening flutes.  It’s a very lyrical piece, bordering on tender, if only a minute long.  This serves as our introduction to the album.

“Movement I In the Countenance of Kings” leads in with a fragile piano, with strings coming in to provide support.  Like most of the album, I’m not sure how this is built around the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but that shows a very ignorant view from me (I’ve never driven on it, so I’ll take Stevens’ word).  But it’s  very beautiful piece, with major and minor tension, completely gaining the listener’s attention. 

“Movement II Sleeping Invader” is the most annoying song on the album.  Most of it is very enjoyable, but the interrupting repetitive notes every few seconds ruins the flow.  Which could be what Sufjan wants considering the title.  But the song builds up in a pleasing way, with an insane shrieking trumpet not stopping for anything.  This song will get stuck in your head, given the opportunity. 

The next track, “Interlude I Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation” is another Sufjan song, by far.  It reminds me very much of “The Black Hawk War” off of Illinois.  It’s got toy piano sounds, strings, and the women’s choir voices that he uses so much.  Then, the end of the song, is a giant build up of noise.  Not bad for a three-minute song.

“Movement III Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise” starts with violin picks (I don’t know what the technique is actually called).  And then gets so, so, poppy and upbeat.  I would’ve never guessed that an Expressway would’ve been this… happy.  But it’s such a cool song, so melodic, that you want to bounce along with it.  And when more and more instruments join in, it only gets better.

And then “Movement IV Traffic Shock” completely breaks up the album.  Its indie-electronica that comes out of nowhere.  It’s another awesome, just pure fun song.  And it’s a standout track because it is so different. Really, it proves what an eclectic (I’m sure that’s not supposed to be used as a noun, but oh well) Sufjan is.

The last track moves seamlessly into the bombastic “Movement I Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns”.  This is probably the most varied, well-thought-out track on the album.  It starts loud, then reigns itself back providing great melodies, overlayered.  And then, strange jazz comes in, completely reorganizing the structure of the song.

The two interludes that follow, do just that, provide short breaks.  Really short.  Twenty-eight seconds and fifty-four seconds, in that order.  I would’ve liked to see the second one, “Interlude III Invisible Accidents”, developed more, seeing that it provides some of the most interesting sounds on the entire album.

But then “Movement VI Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges” breaks in, creating a rhythmic pattern that throws your ears off the subject.  It is yet, another cool song, if only for the building crescendo at the end.

Almost finally (being labeled as the finale), “Movement VII (Finale) The Emperor of Centrifuge” enters, a flighty song, bringing the entire album together.  The previous mentioned major/minor tensions are back, this time along with the tensions of each different instrumental section fighting for the balance of a song.  The worst part about it: not as epic as it should’ve been. This would’ve been a great time for Stevens’ tradition of lengthiness to bring the project to a wonderful, epic close.

However, we are treated to another song, oddly, with “Postlude Critical Mass”.  This is a slower, mostly piano-driven song, completely bringing the mood of the album to a more thoughtful close.  I would’ve appreciated the last two to be switched, but it is still a respectful song to close with, and speaks volumes about what Sufjan’s inspiration was about, maybe a beautiful idea, rather than a grafitti-covered, dirty, misconstrued, stupidly-built expressway.  His take on the BQE is completely his own, but he gets the idea across with this last quiet song, ending, sympathetically, with a whimper.

No one else could’ve done this.  At all.  Any popular artist would’ve been dismissed as being pretentious.  Any lesser artist would’ve been derided and never even got the idea together.  But this is Sufjan’s niche.  He’s tenacious, and has the determination to do a completely instrumental, orchestration about a motorway.  And he’s talented.  The album only works if you’re paying attention, and every detail and nuance is complete.  It’s a touching album about a subject no one would think twice about being artistic.  I’m not sure if the entire project is inane or insane or both or neither.  But, it creates an impressive experience.  I would’ve prefered a more epic track on the album, but The BQE is so preserved and compassionate, it’s fine to be reserved.  For once, that adjective fits Stevens perfectly.

Official Page

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