[sic] Magazine

Sufjan Stevens – The BQE

This jointly sonic and visual exploration of New York’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (the BQE) seems automatically to nudge the realms of JG Ballard. Stevens’ focus however seems less on fetishist appeal and more on reverential quietude. Such a celebration of an otherwise functional arterial expressway however probably requires a healthy dose of both.

Either way, suffice it to say that The BQE is different from the Sufjan Stevens catalogue to date. For example, Sevens Swans, which launched him out of obscurity, was lush and hushed folk music. Its widely-regarded follow up, Illinois, was an exemplary indie-folk crossover with assiduously researched lyrics all pertaining to the U.S. state of the same name.

The BQE on the other hand is almost entirely instrumental, Stevens commanding all a full orchestra has to offer. As such, in place of his trademark lyricism are grandiose arrangements and sweeping, compositional melodies. The resulting orchestral soundtrack comes sporadically punctuated with electronic interludes, minutely deviating The BQE’s traffic from the plain classical. Urban orchestra this is not.

Taken in isolation, the soundtrack is a suite of work, one difficult to enter but at the beginning, user-friendly on and off ramps being few and far between. Naturally, it’s all a little pretentious. Orchestral suites are often designed to be overblown and Stevens is up to this welcome challenge. However, where British Sea Power succeeded with a similar project, Stevens fares less well.

Where Man Of Aran blended paranoid post-rock with epic string sections, squalling guitars with ebbing melodies, The BQE relies too strongly on the pedestal work of the greats. Ultimately, it aims too high, musically seeking the same symphonic ground as, say, Gershwin. Stevens’ arrangements are solid, his brass lively, his reeds woozy, the overall musicianship faultless, but together they are not comparable.

The accompanying DVD of footage used in the original performance, rather than footage of the actual show, sheds a little more light on the project. In turn, it comes with an accompanying 40-page, photo-strewn booklet and now in full context, Stevens’ soundtrack is unobtrusive, complementary even and although never poor still suffers from anonymity in parts.

The DVD itself even is less perhaps than what it could have been. Little can be taken from long shots of immobile traffic, even though other purposefully artistic shots offset these. Perhaps a greater dose of fetishism would have helped enliven The BQE experiment after all.