Sufjan Stevens’ “The BQE”
HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN So, how many years has it been? I can’t remember. I feel old. Remind me of the story. Once there was a little known fella with an equally obscure name who put out a record about a state. That state was Michigan. The encyclopedic illustrated deer on the album cover couldn’t […]Arthur Alligood
October 20, 2009
HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN
So, how many years has it been? I can’t remember. I feel old. Remind me of the story.
Once there was a little known fella with an equally obscure name who put out a record about a state. That state was Michigan. The encyclopedic illustrated deer on the album cover couldn’t have been more surprised. The critics loved it. “Genius!” it was hailed. No one could get enough. Then the said artist spoke up and unveiled a plan to record a record for each state. “Illinois” came soon. It was an even bigger hit. A tour followed. Cheerleading outfits were worn on stage. The song “Chicago” played during the movie Little Miss Sunshine. And the girl in the film danced her stripper moves like her Grandpa had taught her.
But then came the silence . . .the long silence . . . and the fan speculation.
“Hey, Bobby when’s Sufjan putting out a new record?”
“I don’t know Paul. I wish he’d hurry up though.” “Wonder what state will be next.”
“What about Mass-a-choose-us?”
“You’re so funny Bobby.”
But then there was hope. Someone saw the press release on the horizon. A new Sufjan project?! Could it really be?! But as the image approached, hope began to wane. It was a movie. A movie about hula-hoopers and a highway in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Express Highway to be exact. More history, tons more history, and girls in funny costumes with hula-hoops. And to top it off a new record that Mr. Stevens doesn’t even sing on. “Are you kidding me?” some said. “We want more America, more songs about cities and states and presidents!” But it was gone. The record was there, but good ‘ol Soof-yan was nowhere to be found. Well, except in the liner notes.
MUSIC COMPOSED BY SUFJAN STEVENS.
Turned out, Mr. Indie Rock himself had composed a soundtrack of classical music. Gershwin and Copland lingered about each movement. The songs, or should I say “pieces,” had incredibly long titles such as “Interlude 1 Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation” and “Movement VI Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges.” Most fans didn’t see it coming. They still hailed him as a genius, but mostly because they didn’t want to lose their hero. College kids bought the record, some even purchasing the LP version and rocked it out in their dorm rooms. But it felt more like Wagner than Sufjan. They could hear their leader’s touch and style, but could not find him among the beautiful and sometimes haunting arrangements. But still, with a constancy rivaling the rising sun, they hailed him a genius, even though after a couple of weeks they had forgotten their hero had a new record out in the first place.
But be sure, among the orchestra, the flutes and oboes and crashing cymbals, America got all the America it wanted. What had been prized in “Michigan” and “Illinois” and even “Seven Swans” was present in “BQE.” The American spirit was everywhere, the cities and small towns, the whole dang experience. Some fans missed it altogether, but some, a minority, felt it all and considered it the next installment in the plan, though not named for a particular state, it was something quite a bit bigger . . . the “America” record. In some ways they would be exactly right, but not totally. “BQE,” the record, would not silence those eager for the next group of songs about a particular state. Bobby would still be asking Paul if he has heard anything.
MTV did not call for an interview. But NPR did. Symphony halls began to make posters. There was a buzz for a while, but it soon died off. There were more older fans than before, more men who wear bow ties to art exhibits. But finally, the tide receded and everything was back to normal (kind of).
So, thats how it went down. You remember now?
Ah, yes, now I remember. Sufjan, indeed, left his folksy side back in Illinois, but thats ok. Now, he wears the hat of American composer, unshackled by convention, afraid of nothing. One might ask if there is anything he can’t do. The deeper question is whether there is anything he can’t master. “BQE” is a display of mastery in many ways. He has always been a composer. We heard the hints in “Michigan” and “Illinois” and now we have the whole picture in “BQE.” Sufjan at his finest is a matter of opinion, but Sufjan at his most impressive—here it is. “BQE” really is a marvel.
You can preview “Movement VI—Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges” by clicking HERE.