“Illinois marks a highly developed highpoint for an artist whose maturation from here on out should be a wonder to hear.” So ends The A.V. Club’s 2005 review of Sufjan Stevens’ classic Illinois, that perfectly precious (and occasionally painfully twee) album that so nicely solidified Stevens’ place in the modern canon of exceptional songsmiths. Nearly five years later, though, listeners are wondering: Will they ever hear the maturation that was promised? Stevens’ pair of late-2009 releases, Run Rabbit Run and The BQE, only confound the matter. What ostensibly seems like 95 minutes of new Stevens music isn’t new at all, and hardly what anyone would characterize as “tunes.”
First, Stevens’ largely electronic 2001 album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, gets reworked for strings, an idea hardly tailor-made to stir up any repressed Sufmania. But New York’s Osso quartet, frequent collaborator to Antony And The Johnsons, isn’t a typical chamber act, and the group’s approach to these 13 songs inspired by the Chinese zodiac is original, to say the least. “Year Of The Ox” finds the Osso players recreating rhythmic punches with wild jabs across the necks of their instruments, and replacing computer squelch with acoustic skronk. They bang on wooden bodies for beats, cluck their tongues, hiss to create white noise, and swoon when necessary. It’s a lot of talent (among the arrangers gathered is Philip Glass protégé Nico Muhly), and a little novelty—par for the course when it comes to Stevens.
And then there’s The BQE, a Brooklyn Academy Of Music-commissioned multimedia symphony written by Stevens (with a corresponding film directed and shot by Stevens) inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, “a dark, spotty, viral, cancerous, bronchial, pneumatic, and convoluted mass of gray matter, at best,” as Stevens states in his included essay. In 2007, “The BQE” was realized as a grand event, wrangling 36 performers—including hula-hoopers—to execute a loving audiovisual tribute to one of New York’s most clogged arteries. Here, the effect is diminished. Stevens’ lengthy essay gets pretentious quickly, and the CD of music has little appeal to those who don’t already listen to classical. The film itself is pretty great—a rich collection of images culled from around the BQE, interspersed with shots of the “Hooper Heroes” doing their thing—but a standalone DVD would have sufficed.
More power to the artist who hews his own path, but Stevens seems to be spending his time re-cobbling that walk with increasingly elaborate stepping stones, when all anyone wants is a confident follow-up to Illinois. Is that too much to ask for?