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‘Aporia’ is an uneven, yet beautiful ambient interpretation on the meaning of family and life

‘Aporia’ is an uneven, yet beautiful ambient interpretation on the meaning of family and life

‘Aporia’ is an uneven, yet beautiful ambient interpretation on the meaning of family and life
April 03
15:00 2020

Sufjan Stevens is an anomaly. The man is shrouded in mystery and mystique, possessing an unearthly amount of musical and lyrical talent. Since the inception of his published musical career in 1999, he has inarguably remained one of the most generous indie artists when it comes to scope and vision. This is somehow achieved with only seven studio albums (which isn’t a lot for over two decades). However, he makes up for this with a plethora of collaborations, experimental EPs and two widely expansive Christmas albums.

Stevens has always had a flair for the dramatic, weaving his personal narratives in and out of non-fictional narratives and even religious allusion. In 2003, Stevens released his third album and critical breakthrough effort with “Michigan,” which found the Michigan-born artist paying homage to his home state through piano ballads about Flint’s dying irrigation, a nine-minute jazz and Baroque-infused epic about Detroit’s economic decline and minimalistic interludes in honor of Michigan’s landscapes that would fare well as Steve Reich compositions.

Even with the chameleon diversity Stevens possesses, folk has always been Stevens’ true home, and banjo could be considered his main instrument. He decided to showcase the love for his instrument on 2004’s “Seven Swans,” which remains just as lush and elaborate, with mainly the banjo and acoustic guitar being front and center.

“Illinois,” or also known by its full title, “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE” found Stevens perfecting the formula he achieved on “Michigan.” The songs were more fleshed out, the lyrical content more profound, and the interludes had never been more prevalent. He even recruited the University of Illinois’ choir and a string quartet. Stevens would also be credited with playing nearly every instrument on the album. It was monumental, to say the least.

It would be five years before Stevens released another studio effort, with a near-hour long EP, a Christmas album, and a darker-tinged ambient collaboration with his stepfather, Lowell Brams, filling in the gap. From 2009-2010, Stevens dealt with a debilitating viral infection that left him unable to work on music for a while. After nursing himself back to health and getting more in touch with his physical self, he released “The Age of Adz.”

I suppose Stevens decided that five years was the perfect amount of time to work on an album, for he lied dormant once again until 2015’s “Carrie & Lowell.” Safe to say, he always makes it worth the wait because “Carrie & Lowell” is an absolutely sorrowful, ambient folk masterclass from Stevens. The album is a tribute to his mother’s passing and the deterioration of his mental health after the fact, with lyrics and harmonic passages that could make a bodybuilder tear up.

Nevertheless, at last we’ve arrived at another five-year mark for Stevens, and after what seemed like an endless string of home runs for the eclectic artist, “Aporia” was finally dropped among us … and it’s another collaboration with his stepfather, Lowell Brams. Not only that, but it’s a completely electronic ambient album.

The album is the signification of Brams’ retirement from Stevens’ record label, Asthmatic Kitty, which Stevens and Brams have run together since it was founded. It is 21 tracks of purely improvisational ambient music, sitting at 42 minutes in length.

The album plays out like a string of interludes that don’t particularly have a distinct musical direction. Some of the tracks even end abruptly, taking away from the cohesion of the product as a whole. This can make for a jarring listen when ambient music should remain a smooth, meditative journey. There are many kinds of ambient music that are more dissonant in nature, but for the New Age-style Stevens and Brams are going for, I feel the album would’ve benefited from more complete ideas.

“You know how it is with jamming – 90 percent of it is absolutely horrible, but if you’re just lucky enough, 10 percent if magic. I just kept pulling out these little magical moments,” said Stevens in an article from Rolling Stone. The statement reflects the sporadic nature of the album, which is accessible and palatable as far as ambient music goes.

Stevens took inspiration from film soundtracks and other electronic ambient outfits like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, while also delving more into New Age music with artists like Enya. New Age is a style of Western philosophy, religion and spirituality that deals with aspects like mind, body, soul, etc. The album’s meditative nature does well in evoking this spiritual reaction one can have while listening. The album could also be great for yoga or relaxing around the house.

As far as production goes, it is stellar and dynamic. The swells of ambience that wash over remain stimulating and become more potent with repeated listening. Tracks like “Agathon” and “The Red Desert” weave in and out of soundscapes that are both ethereal and jubilant, while also sometimes being eerie. “What It Takes” and “Afterworld Alliance” feature African-based rhythms that add a heartbeat to the album’s progression. They are more primitive in nature when compared to luxuriant pieces like “The Unlimited” and “The Lydian Ring.”

These highlights are sometimes juxtaposed with interludes that could be viewed as palette cleansers, but in reality, could’ve either been fleshed out or cut from the album. They are pleasant, but don’t particularly add to a bigger picture.

“Palinodes” and “For Raymond Scott” are both less than a minute long and really provide nothing useful to the album’s bag of tricks. On the other hand, “Matronymic” is also less than a minute long but provides a picturesque view into a scene from Stevens and Brams’ life together. It has a nice mix and carries its weight as an interlude.

While the album is truly beautiful at moments, it is uneven. Even Stevens had commented on the improvisational nature of the album, and it shows. While the production and some of the compositions are invigorating and original, it doesn’t quite have the spark that a lot of his music does. Even ambient pieces he put out in the past have had more character and bite.

Stevens has gone through what seems like many a spiritual journey. Aside from the emotional turmoil he has faced in the last decade with his illness, the loss of his mother and perhaps the loss of beliefs, he has always found a way to persevere. Rather than telling his story though others’ stories, he has become more comfortable in his own skin. He even has a Best Song Oscar nomination for 2017’s “Mystery of Love” to show for his hard work and dedication.

“Aporia” represents more than just a transitional period for Stevens’ art. It is an ode to his stepfather and the nurture of family through aural interpretation. In that, the album contextually becomes more beautiful than meets the eye. Stevens has nothing to prove yet remains as generous as he ever was. Here’s to another five years, and hopefully we won’t have to wait that long yet again.

Final rating: 3.25/5

Featured image: Courtesy Consequence of Sound

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Nick Lawrence

Nick Lawrence

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