Reviews > Music
Denny Renshaw

Map quest

Music | Sufjan Stevens continues to be all over the place with The BQE

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

Just what is one to do with Sufjan Stevens? Like Ani DiFranco, the only other semi-popular musician of his generation to whom he can be compared, Stevens is a '70s child with as much talent as energy and more of both than he knows what to do with. Also like DiFranco, Stevens invented a small pond to ensure his becoming a big frog.

The small pond DiFranco invented was Righteous Babe Records, a label she founded in 1990 and through which she has released all of her albums. Not surprisingly, she gets to release whatever she wants, so she releases a lot. Stevens' small pond is Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label he founded in 1999 and through which he has released all of his albums. He pretty much releases whatever he wants to as well-not as much as DiFranco, but a lot nonetheless, and its stylistic diversity makes it seem like more.

He is, for instance, all over the map-literally. In 2003 he released an album about Michigan called Michigan, in 2005 an album about Illinois called Illinois. A year later he released The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album, and there's talk that he'll get around to the other 48 states eventually.

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Meanwhile, he's just released The BQE, about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Less an album than a multi-media project, The BQE contains a DVD, a CD, a lavish liner booklet, and a "stereoscopic" View-Master disc. (A limited-edition vinyl-LP version is also available.)

The DVD contains the 40-minute BQE film that Stevens made in response to a commission by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Shown for the first time in 2007, its images of traffic, interrupted occasionally by shots of a trio of hula-hoop-twirling ladies called the Hooper Heroes (yes, it should be Heroines), play out on the wide-screen equivalent of a three-panel mural, shifting and flickering in time to an all-instrumental soundtrack that echoes everything from the minimalism of Philip Glass to the cartoon music of Raymond Scott. The CD contains the soundtrack as well, a redundancy for which Stevens may be forgiven as the whole package costs no more than a single CD.

But it's the liner booklet's eight-page essay that's The BQE's focal point. In it Stevens attempts to render, and to justify, in prose what he's saying in the film and its music, finally conceding that "no amount of indiscriminate soliloquy hell-bent on disambiguation will ever vindicate the antiquated museum-piece of the BQE, nor rehabilitate its hysteric drivers, nor absolve its indomitable creator, Robert Moses."

The verbosity gets even weirder when Stevens posits the hula hoop as an antidote to the nerve-fraying effects of one too many rush hours spent on the roadways of America's big cities: "The hoop is a spiritual home, a sacred residence, and a mountain of solitude, the summit of boundless, endless revelation. . . . The hooper is the high priest, the transcendent being, the whirling dervish . . . ," etc.

At no point does he allude to his Christian faith or convincingly establish why it's easier for a hula-hooper to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a road-rager to enter the kingdom of heaven.

It's possible, of course, that Stevens is writing-and filming, composing, and recording-with his tongue at least partially in his cheek, that he knows how silly the overabundance of his output sometimes seems, and that silliness is hardly the worst way for him to guard against taking himself too seriously.

It's also possible he takes himself too seriously. He would hardly be the first big frog to do so.

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