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  • Genre:

    Folk/Country / Electronic

  • Label:

    Asthmatic Kitty

  • Reviewed:

    March 30, 2020

Eleven years after Music for Insomnia, Stevens and his stepfather reunite on a collection of warm, improvisatory synth-wave epics; intimate and unvarnished, they double as a testament to the power of found family.

Is there a class of family member more roundly despised than the stepparent? “Parents are Hallmark-sacrosanct,” wrote Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts, yet stepparents are seen as “interlopers, self-servers, poachers, pollutants, and child molesters.” Many a fairy tale hinges on the machinations of a wicked stepmother. A long-running horror franchise is called simply The Stepfather, title in red on the posters, oozing blood. To be a stepparent is a thankless task freighted with centuries of cultural baggage; it takes a special sort of person.

To hear Sufjan Stevens tell it, Lowell Brams—his stepfather, immortalized in 2015’s Carrie & Lowell—is just such a person. As a very young child, Stevens spent summers in the Oregon home his mother, Carrie, shared with Brams, who proved a steady, soothing presence in a childhood of unremitting tumult. Years later, grieving the loss of his mother, Stevens recalled those summers as a “season of hope.” Brams recognized Stevens’ nascent talent, and he fed it—gave the boy mixtapes, introduced him to Bob Dylan, bought him his first keyboard and 4-track recorder. In 1999, when Stevens recorded his first album, Brams founded a record label to put it out. Now, with Brams retiring from the label, he and Stevens release Aporia, a synth-wave epic testifying to the love they’ve shared.

Culled from jam sessions recorded over the past decade, this is a looser record than we’re used to from Stevens. These songs have an improvisatory feel that has been refined and polished, though not to a digital shine. The mood throughout is warm and familiar, like something from a half-remembered childhood Sunday morning, blocky gray video-game remote in hand. He credits Brams, with his “great ear and great instincts,” for capturing choice moments from their raw collaboration, like the warm wind that closes “The Red Desert” or the solemn strings that dart across “Determined Outcome.” Brams, for his part, has been bashful in promoting the record, saying, “It’s unusual to have someone with little or no talent collaborating with someone who’s got truckloads like Sufjan.” Stevens, though, has always cut a unique figure as a rock star, prioritizing his privacy and his personal relationships while pursuing offbeat, unshowy opportunities. He never capitalized on his moment of Oscars glory; he continues, instead, to make meaningful music with the people who’ve loved him longest.

Though Aporia’s air is one of freewheeling collaboration, with many an old friend making an appearance—check those swooping Cat Martino vocal lines on “What It Takes” and “Conciliation”—there is a careful architecture to the record, a structure not unlike that of a science fiction soundtrack. The calm yoga-retreat swell of opening track “Ousia” builds quickly to a palpable sense of quest, in the electronic pulse of “Afterworld Alliance,” and danger, rippling high and insecure beneath the foreboding bass synth of “Conciliation.” The closest analogue would be a John Carpenter score, or perhaps one of the sprawling, crowd-sourced Homestuck soundtracks. Brams and Stevens were smart to seek out a unifying thread in the instruments of Dave Smith, the pioneering synthesizer designer. Smith’s Tempest drums and Prophet synths lend a warm, analog consistency to songs with an otherwise diverse palette—fairy-tale lightness in “Glorious You,” saw-toothed grit in “Matronymic.”

Though Stevens is famously versatile—he played nearly two dozen instruments on Illinois, including four types of recorder—he once aspired to become an author, even earning an MFA in fiction from the New School, and his storytelling remains among the most compelling aspects of his work. This is to say that there is a sense of something lost when he’s not writing lyrics; hardly a fair critique, I know, of an almost entirely instrumental record. The titles, at least, serve as guides for the listener to create a story of their own making. They call on Greek philosophy (“The Lydian Ring,” “Agathon”), unsung composers (“For Raymond Scott”), and SAT vocabulary (“Ataraxia,” “Misology,” “Palinodes”), planting flickering neon signs for listeners curious enough to venture down Wikipedia rabbit holes. When Stevens does sing two verses’ worth of real, human words, nearly half an hour in, on “The Runaround,” the effect is almost shocking, a sharp tug back to the realm of language.

The past several years have been a time of great upheaval in Stevens’ life. He has weathered tremendous personal tragedy and undergone a very public recovery. He has ascended to a level of stardom both stratospheric (the Oscars, Coachella) and cultic (the young queer people who have gone out and tattooed wasps on their arms) while embracing spontaneity and close connection. There is something profoundly lovely about seeing Stevens safe in such a strange, adventurous effort, supported by Brams and the rest of his found family.

Buy: Rough Trade

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