Sufjan Stevens is nothing if not ambitious. He’s a top-notch songwriter and instrumentalist, but he doesn’t rest on his laurels. Instead, he tackles big projects. Although he’s recently rescinded on his promise to make an album for each state, he did make two state-centric albums that were heavy on local details and took plenty of research. And they turned out to be pretty amazing records.
Perhaps tired of tackling so much geography, he decided to dedicate a multimedia project to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a 12.7-mile roadway connecting both of its namesake boroughs. In 2007 he premiered his production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There was an orchestra. There were hula-hoops. There were video projections. There was Stevens in daring fashion-white pants! It was an aural and visual feast. Now Stevens has released a multimedia album/DVD/comic book combo of the project. A sort of Make Your Own BQE! So how does the audio portion fare? Pretty well.
Although the project is obviously intended to be absorbed in all of its 3-D glory, the music stands on its own, even if it has some problems. Billed as a cinematic suite, The BQE fits neither the mold of a standard symphony or of a soundtrack. The listening experience accordingly feels like a modern hybrid of the two. “Prelude on the Esplanade” is an ambient warm-up for the bombastic “Introductory Fanfare For The Hooper Heroes.” We then get into the meat of the album with “Movement I-In the Countenance of Kings” and “Movement II-Sleeping Invader,” which each sound like a brief pastiche of notable classical composers-and Stevens has made no secret of the influence had by Gershwin and Ives. The problem isn’t with his homage to these composers; it’s with the lack of a memorable melody.
Not until the third movement do we get a sense of what we’re experiencing. The flighty woodwinds allude to speeding vehicles weaving through lanes. Finally, we get the image of this architectural behemoth and its daily activities, and this tune reappears two tracks later, thus forming some sense of cohesion.
The strangest component of The BQE is the aptly titled “Movement IV: Traffic Shock.” Its electronic schizophrenia is not only a departure from the orchestral works surrounding it, but it also sounds like a song suitable for Beirut’s Realpeople Holland EP that was released earlier this year. It is a bizarre venture in the land of synthesizers that, while out of place, does mimic the frantic experience of BQE traffic.
That even traffic sounds fun and exciting highlights a conflicting feeling I had with the album. The 40-minute album feels like a joyous adventure to somewhere. You don’t always know where you’re going, and only sometimes does it feel grounded in the BQE, but the energy pushes you forward. You’re propelled from one musical moment to the next. He grasps what architectural splendor that modern expressways are-and even if they are eyesores and urban tragedies, they’re still awesome examples of construction. Stevens captures that sense of wonder that most drivers forget when they’re stuck in traffic or speeding through the lanes. Yet, the negative aspects of the BQE are noticeably absent. Not until you reach the closing “Postlude: Critical Mass” do you get the sense that Stevens sees the darker side to constructing this monstrous expressway. It was an expensive endeavor met with much criticism in its time, and today it stills receives its share of hatred from residents who blame it for dividing neighborhoods. The somber “Postlude: Critical Mass”, with its soft piano, feels like an elegy to the expressway and to the glorious vision its designer envisioned. Now that the BQE’s excitement and grandeur is gone-perhaps decades after its construction when you can see how it affected residents or at night when only a few cars pass along its roads-Stevens provides an intimate moment to reflect on it.
I can’t decide what Stevens wants to say about the BQE. Like much contemporary art, a vague premise can often lead to creative discussions about an artist’s intent. Is what’s not said as important as what is said? Are we being lazy to ask for more guidance? If you watch the visual portion, read the accompanying essay, and flip through the artwork, you get a sense of Stevens’ vision. The cover alone is a shot of the expressway with the title superimposed in pixelated graffiti. It’s both digital manipulation and urban, which might be the perfect summation of the album. As a listener, you won’t get a complete understanding of what The BQE is. You will, however, have an enjoyable experiencing listening to this cinematic suite and forming your own story about this concrete monster.