Sufjan Stevens: Aural Adventures in Pandemic Pop

The ever-ambitious album artist reconfigures the five stages of grief for electronic instrumentation

Sufjan Stevens 2021 (Art: Ron Hart)

When we’re not Zooming on one screen or streaming on another, most of us have been spending way too much time inside our own heads.

It can be a dangerous place, disturbing. You isolate for a year–in quarantine, lockdown, amid general pandemic precautions or simply masked and anonymous—and you can start to get a little squirrelly. You’re missing the connections and outside stimuli that usually fire your synapses. Your brain starts feeding on itself, and your mind becomes an echo chamber, distorting as it repeats.

Sufjan Stevens knows how that feels. And he knows how it sounds. Over the last few weeks, he has been releasing five albums of instrumental music, “ambient electronica” or some such, which sound like psychic weather patterns. Each album has its own title—Meditations, Lamentations, Revelations, Celebrations, Invocations—and the selections on each are titled by Roman numeral—“Meditation I,” and so on.

The cycle of release will be complete on Friday (May 6), with the whole set titled Convocations, which is how it will be packaged and shipped, for those who still purchase music as physical product.  The process seems so neat and orderly, though the music is anything but.  It is more like the soundtrack to mental claustrophobia, intensified, in this case, through the prism of mourning.  For this long pandemic has not only been a time of isolation, but one of grief, of death, amid all that human disconnection. So much death and dying, during such strange times. 

How can the mind process this? How can music help us work through it, get past it?

 

 

Stevens released The Ascension, his previous album, on September 25, 2020, as the pandemic was hitting its second wave. The double-disc (on vinyl) set was hailed as a creative peak of his audacious career.  Among its highlights was “Die Happy,” a trippy, meditative piece with the repeated incantation, as if it were a mantra, “I want to die happy.” Two days later, Sufjan’s biological father died. 

And here is where the creative process has taken him, just eight months later, almost like a pregnancy coming to full term.  It’s a project about both coming to terms with death and coming to terms with these extraordinary times, with being alone and left to your own devices, with not knowing how bad things might get or how long this will last. With not having any idea what life will look like on the other side.

Or, as the promotional release from his Asthmatic Kitty label puts it, the album “moves like a two-and-a-half-hour electronic/ambient mass for our present age of anxiety and dread; its 49 tracks work through the stages of grief and gladness with emotional mood music that is dreamy, dissonant, vertiginous, rhythmic, repetitive, urgent, and calm—that is, all the things we undergo when we inevitably live through isolation, uncertainty, and loss. Its five sonic cycles (Meditations, Lamentations,  RevelationsCelebrations, and Incantations) replicate different stages of mourning, healing and catharsis, working both to soothe our unease while savoring a renewed sense of awe and wonder for being alive in these unprecedented times.”

From the start of his musical career, Stevens has been an ambitious conceptualist, but that ambition was previously tempered by a spirit of playfulness, a self-deprecating whimsy. (If he were ever tempted to title an album, say, A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, it would have the wink of irony.) He first attracted widespread attention with what he called his “Fifty States Project,” in which he declared that he would be releasing an album celebrating each state.  

He began with Michigan (2003) and followed with Illinois, both well-received for their idiosyncratic spirit and skewed perspective—and then decided he’d made his point.  Whatever point that was.  He quit with the states, and soon shifted his expansive conceptualism toward his “Songs for Christmas” project, with the release of ten EPs of holiday music over the first decade of the new century—compiled and repackaged as Songs for Christmas (2006) and Silver & Gold (2012).

In his musical maturity, grand conceptualism has taken a more somber turn, dealing with death as we all inevitably must. With 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, he eulogized his mother (Carrie; Lowell Brams is his stepfather and occasional collaborator) as the  album opens, on “Death With Dignity,” with the artist confessing that “I don’t know where to begin.” Those were different times, times that expressed themselves with childlike wonder and folkish simplicity.  Times before the lockdown.

Sufjan Stevens Convocations, Athsmatic Kitty 2021

There is nothing playful or childlike about Convocations, an album that probes the emotional depths of death while going stir crazy inside your own head.  Begun in the wake of his father’s death and continuing through a period of collective mourning, in isolation, that appeared like it would have no end, the album is being released with a structure that appears to provide order to the disorder of emotions. 

Grief, here, has five stages, as it did for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose On Death and Dying (1969) provided a template for the emotions through which we progress in mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Stevens maintains that five-part structure, but with different labels, retaining the idea that there are different stages, distinct from each other, as one slowly comes to terms with the depth of a deep, dark loss and the need to persevere in the face of it.

Were these selections composed and recorded in the order in which they have been sequenced?  Were they composed at all?  Were they conceived as parts of five different sonic cycles? Were they “played” on conventional instruments?  Was all of the first album, Meditations, conceptualized before he began working on Lamentations or the rest?  Do these sound like distinct stages to the artist?  Did he experience them as such?

He has certainly released them as such, one a week, giving the devoted fan plenty of time to process each before moving on to the next.  Each (until the last) has ten selections, numbered (or numeraled) I-X, with few selections lasting more than four minutes and some lasting less than two. So, maybe a half-hour or so per individual album, two-and-a-half hours for the whole thing. If it were a movie, you might sit through all of it at once, but it isn’t, and you can’t—or at least couldn’t when these were in the process of release.  Instead you had to live with each, stew in each, for however long it might take before you felt you were ready to move on.

 

 

With its churchy organ and sustained cords, Meditations opens with funereal majesty.  There is something big going on, something somber. You submit to it.  As “Meditation I” proceeds to “Meditation II,” you hear an approximation of a church choir, human voice added to the mix, though wordless.  Then the hymnal of your mind starts to turn weird, for you are not, after all, in a church, and there no others around to comfort you with harmony.  You continue hearing—or generating?—simple, repetitive patterns, but they can sound staticky, a little warped, as they worm their way insistently through your brain.  What began as church music edges suspicious toward the soundtrack of terror.

Whatever the progression, which is no more predictable than the psyche’s flight of fancy, Meditations seems to end on “Meditation X” with a full-circle resolution, a pattern that will continue on the other individual albums (until the last), a sonic richness that gives the sense of completion.  Because Lamentations, the next stage, will introduce other sonic elements—a music box, tolling bells, some synth jazz with a harpsichord delicacy, an underwater-sounding gong, until, by “Lamentation VIII,” you’ve progressed beyond recognizable instruments and melodies, where you might be hearing voices or it might just be mental disturbance.  The resolution this time comes with the spare, subdued piano coda of “Lamentation X,” as if the spirit of Bill Evans has arrived to bring you some peace.  It is lovely in a way you hadn’t expected this music to be so lovely.

 

 

With Revelations, the skies are starting to clear a little, with uptempo echoes of Pink Floyd, circa Meddle. The skies are opening, the pulse quickening. Yet strange weather still lies ahead, with discordance and disconnection, as patterns vaguely familiar from previous stages are repurposed and repositioned (compare “Revelation IV” with “Meditation X”), as chorales compete with static interruption,  We’ve plainly turned a corner with “Revelation IX,” with sounds the alarm of tolling bells. And for whom the bell tolls?

Celebrations sounds like the wild card in this particular musical deck.  Play it for anyone, and no one is likely to say it sounds particularly celebratory.  Particularly early on, with its somber chords and brooding atmospherics. (It’s worth noting that for Kubler-Ross, this fourth stage was “depression.”) These are among the strangest pieces of the whole set, particularly “Celebration II,” the longest at almost six minutes, where new age piano swirls into a synth starburst and proceeds into pastiche that goes off the rails. Yet we must have to go through this process to get somewhere, and get somewhere we do, on the kalimba-like “Celebration X,” where we’re opening to a sense of wonder, where the sound is full and rich a majestic, and the resolution of one stage seems like more of a new beginning.

 

 

We are a long way from where we started when we reach the concluding disc, Incantations, which has a lot more air and space and hope to it, looking upward where the funereal Meditations had kept its eyes lowered.  The compositions are spare and the interpretation comparatively sprightly. It doesn’t so much introduce different elements—in terms of pattern and sound—as process them a little differently.  There is more clarity than clutter or chatter.  And since it ends one selection short of the others, with “Incantation IX,” there is no sense of closure or resolution. The process remains ongoing, open-ended.

Yet finishing the album, you know you’ve been through something. As Stevens has. As we all have. And that something has changed us. When we revisit this period of pandemic from the perspective of whatever follows, we will marvel at the music it produced, the claustrophobic clatter of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the astonishing appearance of Bob Dylan’s first recordings of original material in eight years—including his longest recorded song ever—as well as the pair of companion albums through which Taylor Swift changed everything: her working method, her collaborators, her sound, her songwriting, her dynamic.

 

 

It was as if something had changed our collective chromosomes, the way we create and then the way we consume, so that we had the time and patience for longer Dylan and subtler, more reflective Taylor and two-and-a-half hours of wordless mood music from Sufjan Stevens.  And for all those projects unfurled on Bandcamp, where artists and audiences have been connecting in a way that they no longer could in person. 

Will anyone ever listen to Convocations once this period has passed? All the way through? For entertainment? For aerobics or exercise or long walks in the park?  Streaming on shuffle play?  After five weeks of submersion in this, I’m ready to listen to something else, with the fresh perspective that Convocations has given me.  We have been in a tunnel, and this has generated some light.

 

VIDEO: Convocations Livestream

 

 

 

 

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Don McLeese

Don McLeese has been writing about popular culture since the Carter presidency. He was the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Austin American-Statesman, a senior editor at No Depression and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He teaches journalism at the University of Iowa. 

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