Instrumental Expressways: Sufjan Stevens and “The BQE”

Technically, I’ve never seen the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But while hearing Sufjan Stevens’ new album, an orchestral suite inspired by and named after the ‘BQE’, pictures of the highway instilled in my mind. They look like this:

The view from an overpass at night. Cityscape is visible, traffic lull is audible.
Freeway at rush hour: angry honks punctuate the amusing song of a million routines colliding.
Sleepwalking down a boulevard, everything moves in hazy harmony.

These are but a few of the many images invoked by “The BQE,” the latest release of Sufjan Stevens and Asthamtic Kitty Records. Stevens wrote the suite for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and used it as the soundtrack for a silent film he created centered around the BQE, a leviathan of urban planning, “one of Brooklyn’s most notable icons of urban blight.” Plunging through suburbia and industrial zones alike, the BQE inspired Stevens to write the 13 pieces that constitute “The BQE.” Completely instrumental, the pieces are reminiscent at points of composers such as Gershwin (see especially “Movement V—Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns”), Ives, and Elfman’s earlier years.

A “cinematic suite inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Hula-Hoop,” the album marks yet another new style for Stevens, a composer who refuses to be pinned down into a single genre. And yet, for those familiar with Sufjan’s prior works, “The BQE” will contain reminiscence, even if through a fresh sound. The instrumental interludes scattered throughout “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” (2005) can be seen as forerunners of “The BQE.” The feeling conveyed by both, as with Steven’s vast body of other works–such as the electronic “A Sun Came” (2000) or folk “Michigan” (2003)–is identical, and yet the medium differs drastically between them. Just as, for example, The Odyssey of Homer and William Yeat’s poem “The Stolen Child” convey similar images of nostalgia and endless adventure’s siren song, Stevens seamlessly adapts a myriad of methods for manifesting his insightful perspective on community, movement, and the supernatural. “The BQE” is Sufjan’s orchestral manifestation of this perspective. Each piece depicts Stevens’ meditation on the foibles of humankind, sometimes through impish joy, but always with an undertone of quiet observance of folly inherent in humanity’s determined strides through freeways and decades.

Were I to describe “The BQE” in a word, it would be “trill,” which is fitting considering the subject matter is an expressway. Certain tracks, such as “Movement VI—Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges,” especially communicate the  rhythmic chaos of city traffic. Variations on this imagery—which correspond, in “The BQE,” to certain musical themes—are endless, just like various combinations of trills. Fast? Slow? Minor? Major? Sufjan Stevens grasps the city’s voice, which like any voice, communicates unity through a variety of tones.

From something concrete and mediocre—the BQE—Stevens creates “The BQE,” an inspiring reconsideration of a thing deemed irredeemable. Stevens explores the beauty he finds beyond and beneath mere appearance in even the most unsightly environments. In doing so, Stevens, a practicing Anglo-Catholic, proclaims the same Gospel that Christ proclaimed when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

“The BQE” was released by Asthmatic Kitty Records on October 20, 2009. A free download of the track “Movement VI—Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges” is available from their website.

“Dying to Life”: The Mountain Goats’ Mortal Climb

Some people are filled with a loud joy, as if naturally disposed to see the light in life.

For others, the road to discovering light is hard-won: they arise to a place of perspective and authenticity–a quiet joy–only through experiencing and witnessing painful descents.

John Darnielle, singer/songwriter for the folk rock band The Mountain Goats, is this second sort of person. In their latest album, The Life of the World to Come, his life’s battle is laid bare alongside his vision of its inevitable end when death arrives. Darnielle’s story is almost unbelievable: he was raised by an abusive stepfather, has been a nurse in a psychiatric ward, homeless, and friends with methamphetamine addicts.

One should not expect that his songs are a bowl of cherries, bouquet of roses, cup of tea, or any other cliché. His lyrics are sandpaper: they scrape raw, but the scars are a temporary necessity in the journey to final elegance. Certainly, this is not a ‘background-dinner-music’ album. It demands the listener’s full attention. Nor is this necessarily an album for everyone. The person capable of possessing bright joy without witnessing the dark night may not need to hear this album.

Musically, the album takes a minimalist, acoustic approach. This is not an album for someone seeking musical innovation or versatile orchestration. The album utilizes simple steel-string guitar and piano, as well as occasional percussion. Fittingly, only skeletons of heavy chord progressions accompany Darnielle’s difficult, insightful lyrics.

Every track—each one named after a different passage of Scripture—builds to form a rich religious progression, culminating at the concluding bass drum ‘heartbeat’ in the last song, “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace.” This album is not shy about its theme: preparation for death. Darnielle has stated that he is not a Christian, and while The Life of the World to Come surely won’t make an appearance in CCM Magazine, his words are deep spiritual meditations that synthesize personal experiences and Scripture passages.

One of the final tracks, ‘Matthew 25:21′, is a perfect example. Based on the verse, “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,’” the song tells the story of traveling cross-country to a beloved friend’s bedside, simply to be with them in the final surrender to cancer. “Tried to brace myself, but you can’t brace yourself when the time comes,” Darnielle recalls. And then he continues as if he is releasing his friend into the ‘joy of his master’: “We all stood there around you, happy to hear you speak,” he sings. “The last of something bright burning, still burning…You were a presence full of light upon this earth, and I am a witness to your life and to its worth.”

Likewise, the other tracks draw from actual events. “Genesis 3:23” (free to download via 4AD Records) describes the nostalgia of returning to an old home, now filled by other homeowners. Yet Darnielle adds a new dimension to this familiar experience by pairing it with the verse, “…therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” His lyrics bring scriptures alive by incarnating them into accessible—though often pain-filled—human experiences.

For the person who struggles to find light, The Life of the World to Come is a descent worth taking. However, the listener must trust that Darnielle will not end in the descent, though he should not be expected to completely vanquish darkness. Nevertheless, Darnielle successfully continue the battle in hope. Even with the final lines, Darnielle presses us forward. “Drive ’till the rain stops,” he cries out and then, he concludes, “Keep driving.”

The Life of the World to Come was released by 4AD Records on October 6th and is available for purchase on Amazon.