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Sufjan Stevens: The BQE (Album Review)

The whimsical career path that the increasingly enigmatic singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has embarked upon takes another unconventional twist with the release of his mixed-media tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a move that will turn heads and raise suspicion in equal measure. Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in late 2007, the project began as a series of live performances complete with a 36-strong orchestra, a throng of female hula dancers, and Super 8 footage that Stevens filmed and directed himself. Despite this well-received string of sold-out performances, it has taken almost two years for an official CD release of these coveted orchestrations. The BQE, then, is another feather in the capricious cap of this endlessly exciting talent, a singer-songwriter who shows very little interest in singing or writing “songs” these days.

As Stevens’s most elaborate endeavor to date, BQE should be admired for its sheer ambition alone. Pretentious song titles aside (“Interlude I: Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation” and “Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise” are surely his most ghastly tongue-twisters to date), Stevens seems remarkably comfortable in this environment, crafting each track with an air of confidence and grandeur. Following two preliminary flourishes, “Movement I: In the Countenance of Kings” plays as a faultless pointer to the album’s lush scope and elegance. The track’s hollow, melancholic piano melody meanders along a subdued overture before tremolo bass work rouses urgency from the string and brass sections. The clamor intensifies and wanes back and forth, gathering steam for a climatic fanfare that never arrives. The piece instead saunters en route for “Movement II: Sleeping Invader” with its charmingly sullen ivory hook, a splendid twist to the tale.

The album moves sinuously through its series of movements and interludes, executed with understated grace for the most part, but this rule is shrewdly breached whenever Stevens sees fit. “Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise,” for instance, is a swelling woodwind arrangement that inflates and expands relentlessly, gradually mingling with the orchestra’s string, brass, and percussion sections before exploding into an electronic tour de force with “Movement IV: Traffic Shock.” Here, the orchestra’s piccolo and alto flute duel with an electronic symphony akin to Enjoy Your Rabbit, a flurry of cacophonous screeches and deep thuds. Even when stretching his chops in these new environments, Stevens retains a flair for daring and innovative musicianship.

Some will find it unfortunate that traces of Stevens’s indie-folk roots are scarce; the bubbly piano melody of “Interlude III: Invisible Accidents” toys with his erstwhile sound, arriving as a welcome change to the album’s byzantine nature, but this is merely a pit stop. The most ostentatious arrangements are reserved for the home stretch and “Movement VII (Finale): The Emperor of Centrifuge,” banishing his beguiling melodies altogether in favor of the album’s most grandiose compositions. It’s no coincidence BQE begins to lose momentum here, caught in a traffic jam of overblown sonatas that unfortunately highlight the pretentious side of Stevens’s highly wrought venture.

If one can ignore this overexcited curtain call, though, BQE can be deemed a hugely successful gamble for Stevens. His ideas are realized with the confidence of a seasoned composer, comfortable with implementing all corners of the orchestra to wondrous effect. From here, there’s no telling where his fanciful and bizarre career path may take him, though calls to backtrack a few steps to his Illinois mindset will plague this immensely gifted singer-songwriter wherever he decides to go.