Review Summary: All the impossible shapes we live in.
The Canadian town of Bonavista is a quirky place, to say the least. Although historically significant (nearby Cape Bonavista is where Italian explorer John Cabot first made landfall back in 1497), the town's current population stands at a mere 3,764 people, with generations upon generations of townspeople having been driven away by the promise of better fortunes elsewhere. The town's location on the eastern tip of Newfoundland and Labrador also regularly lends the downtown core to serious bouts of flooding. The local mail delivery service has also gone the way of good irrigation - here in Bonavista, your personal mail can only be obtained by making a trip down to the local post office yourself; from what I've been told, this pilgrimage has become quite the social event in recent times. It doesn't take long to realize that Bonavista's bare-shingles approach to even the most mundane of daily affairs is innately humbling, but even more interesting to us wannabe poets is the fact that the town's way of life stands proudly as a fantastic juxtaposition to the raging nature of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (the BQE); and this brings me nicely onto the subject of the Sufjan Stevens' 2009 release of the same name.
album was itself commissioned to Sufjan Stevens by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 2007, and it sought to conceive of the six-lane New York freeway as a mixed-medium artistic template, with Sufjan himself at the helm. Having been given free rein over the project, much of the album's sound reflects Sufjan's own sentiments on this particular stretch of urban roadway; his liner notes for the album describe the BQE as a "dark, spotty, viral, cancerous, bronchial, pneumatic, and convoluted mass of grey matter, at best". Expression of this bitter disdain is quickly let out of the gates, with opening track "Prelude on the Esplanade" coming across as a dripping trombone piece that panders around in a sea of electrochemical glitching. Although it hardly gets anywhere on its own, it hearkens to the spirit of the Gesmakunstwerk
, and serves to paint a picture of a sunrise, suffusing itself onto the BQE's concrete like an ugly scab wound. Ever one for the archetypes of salvation, Sufjan then takes great liberties in sprinkling references to noble crusaders all throughout the record; the first mention of the three extra-terrestrial superhero sisters - Botanica, Quantus, and Electrus (geddit? B, Q, and E?) - are made in the second song, "Introductory Fanfare For The Hooper Heroes". As this triumphant trumpet-driven ode effervesces along, it suddenly hits you that the initial construct of Stevens' and the BAM's madness has been made complete - for what in God's name is one expected to make of the idea of three sequined babes, who gyrate around aimlessly in circles, and use hula-hoops to combat the Messiah of Civic Projects?
The poet himself offers no clues to this rather bewildering picture that he has painted; in fact, he admits that he may know nothing of it at all. Speaking in an interview with the Herald Scotland, Sufjan remarks that a "non-personal, non-narrative piece" was all he intended to do with The BQE
. In truth however, we didn't really need the Herald didn't really need to tell us that, for a distinct lack of identity is quickly and immediately clear on this record. The BQE
is nothing - absolutely nothing
- like one would expect on a Sufjan Stevens original release. The entire record is wordless, and with tormented songs like "Movement II: Sleeping Invader", runs the gamut of heartbroken pianos and sorrowful strings to tell a story of a corrupted American Dream, filled to the brim with gaseous fumes and over-congestion. "I was relinquishing my greatest weapon," concedes Sufjan, referring to his complete dispensing of lyrical work in molding the fluttering interludes of The BQE
; but never has verbal silence been so deafening.
This entire release reeks of an existential crisis. From the whispering choirs of "Dream Sequence In Subi Circumnavigation", to the sprawling trumpets of "Self Organizing Emergent Patterns", the pieces fall together like a romanticized musical choreography of perpetual motion versus gridlock. When does one end and the other begin? The anachronistic humdinger that is this unholy mess speaks to the chaos of the daily routine on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and the utter senselessness of it all. What does one make of the implausible on-ramps, the unending turnoffs, the numerous potholes, and the infuriating display of billboards advertising the next Hollywood blockbuster or the latest in fast food cuisine? What does it all mean? And does it even matter? Again, forget about looking to Sufjan for the answer - "Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise" appears to be as confused as we are, as evidenced by its spouting out of discordant flute notes, which vainly attempt to foist some form of therapeutic order to proceedings; though for what it's worth, it's as gorgeous as hell. And then there are the ticker tape parades - those pulsing numbers like "Traffic Shock" and "Invisible Accidents", which swarm out of the docks like urban pedestrians in time-lapse videos, ever racing for the next big thing. These songs are all about motion, and add some much-needed pace to Sufjan's overall story.
But at the end of it all, the ultimate question still remains: what is the point of The BQE
? Evidence goes to suggest that it is nothing more than a social treatise-via prose-poem psychobabble, designed to be played in music halls for the bewilderment of those who desire to call themselves cultured. But I posit that the answer lies in the repeated listens, which eventually yields the album's great secret; this recording is a lot more than the apparent delusions of a man who has spent weeks on a foolhardy, existential road trip. It is in fact a movement
- one that is writhing, sprawling, and introspective all at once, yet both static and limp at the same time. This is a take that requires a lot of patience; it is not blessed with the efficiency of the Autobahn
, nor the veritable culture of a Bangkok sidewalk; but when the locks are disabled and the defenses are down, the final experience is one that will be infinitely rewarding.