Influenced by New Age music, sci-fi soundtracks and ancient Greek philosophy and theology, the album is the result of years of casual music-making at Stevens’ home studio.
Sufjan Stevens has, for two decades now, been doing whatever the hell he wants. Somewhere along the line, the story started being told that he had made the progression from sensitive singer-songwriter (Michigan) to arch-experimentalist (The Age of Adz) and back again (Carrie & Lowell). You might even call that last work, from 2015, a “return to form.”
But this begs the question, what form? Back in 1999, when Stevens released his debut album A Sun Came on the newly constituted Asthmatic Kitty label – co-founded with his step-father Lowell Brams (the Lowell of Carrie & Lowell) – he was oscillating stylistically between tracks influenced by ‘90s indie rock and folk, world music jams, noise experiments and surreal joke sketches. The thread holding it all together was his voice. His follow-up was an instrumental electronic record centered on the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Now, we have Aporia, the first full musical collaboration between Sufjan Stevens and Lowell Brams (the two previously collaborated on Brams’ 2009 drone album Music for Insomnia, which is worth checking out) and a send-off to celebrate Brams’ retirement from the label. If you trace Stevens’ discography through an opus on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, his musical collaborations with choreographer Justin Peck, an album about the planets, and his 100-song (!) journey through the fraught season of Christmas, what you will find is a collection of seemingly “minor” works that make up an alternate Sufjan Stevens Musical Canon, of which Aporia is both a part and a kind of culmination.
Influenced by New Age music, sci-fi soundtracks and ancient Greek philosophy and theology, the album is the result of years of casual music-making at Stevens’ home studio. The best pieces of the longer, more aimless jams between the two were carved out and re-arranged into the tightly composed, melodic tunes on Aporia. Opening track “Ousia” – from the Greek, the philosophical concept of essence – washes over the listener, well, literally. The first sound is of waves gently subsiding on the shore. A simple synth melody blooms overtop of this sound, and the track adds successive sustained sound elements until they culminate in more wave-sounds. Then, a less pristine sound arrives, a slightly fuzzy keyboard. The New Age peace is suddenly augmented by a blurry but driving beat.
This percussive element is far more prevalent on Aporia than one would expect from a mostly-instrumental, atmospheric album. But this is the signature sound of Stevens’ electronic compositions, and an under-discussed element of his music in general. Any listener who reveled in The Age of Adz will recognize the idiosyncrasies of Stevens’ beat-making. This component is a welcome one on a record like this, where formlessness can often lead to tracks drifting or stalling in their revolution. It gives a dynamic aspect to the tracks that included it, and creates a strong contrast between pieces like “Glorious You” or “Misology” (meaning “the hatred of reasoning” – Plato used it describe those who sent Socrates to his death), which both build dense atmospheres in under two minutes sans percussion.
The question of whether the dynamic shift in a track will evolve in a beat-driven direction creates a tension that keeps the listener attuned to each movement within the tracks themselves and across the album as a whole. Stevens’ titles have always been important – and, some would say pretentious, but erudite is the better word for them – Aporia is no exception. The word is “an expression of real or pretended doubt or uncertainty especially for rhetorical effect.” That sense of uncertainty is sonically embedded in the record. Speculating somewhat, one wonders if this doesn’t apply to Stevens’ own musical practice. He hasn’t produced a solo album in five years, but enjoys a wider audience than he ever has, thanks in large part to “Mystery of Love,” his Oscar nominated song that resulted in a performance on the award show seen by tens of millions of people.
And yet, the most recognizable characteristic of his music – his voice – appears on only one track with lyrics. “The Runaround” is all anticipatory, dragging beat, overlaid with paranoid synth spikes and swirls, until its final third when Stevens emerges from the fog and sings the first line: “Give me a name.”
As the first full-length for the newly acquainted with his music, Aporia is a radical choice for Stevens to make. More than that, it is a selfless one. In collaborating with a person who has meant so much to his life and work, and sharing that collaboration with the world at a time when his platform is bigger than it ever has been, he captures, again, the communal and gracious spirit his art has always possessed. He has performed a kind of disappearing act – the closing track is aptly named for the famed ring of invisibility that originates in Greek myth and philosophy and from which Tolkien derived his more famous ring – that points away from himself at a time when it would be easy, understandable even, to cash in on Sufjan™ and instead pays tribute to Lowell Brams, a father figure, co-conspirator, and, now, bandmate.
But Stevens doesn’t stop at the idea that making art together, that doing things in service of others, is preferable to the wild individualism critics might falsely associate with his work. He extends an invitation – to this world of restless artistic searching and gracious collaboration that he has been building for 20 years – to the listener with the last words he sings on the album: “What are you waiting for?/ March through the door.”