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Sufjan Stevens’s ‘Aporia’ is uncertain music for uncertain times

music review

<p>Earlier this week, Sufjan Stevens (right) released his latest collaboration with his stepfather Lowell Brams (center).</p>

Earlier this week, Sufjan Stevens (right) released his latest collaboration with his stepfather Lowell Brams (center).

On Tuesday, a few days ahead of its slated release date, Sufjan Stevens released “Aporia,” his latest collaborative effort with his stepfather Lowell Brams. From their minds was born the album whose title means something akin to “at a loss” in Greek, a message that is not lost on listeners or the musicians themselves amid the current pandemic-induced uncertainty.

Not only are 50% of the proceeds from the album and merchandise going toward charities providing aid amid COVID-19, but the album successfully pays homage to new-age and aporia, rife with haunting Eric Whitacre-esque vocals, processed sound, and operatic space-like sequences. The album opens with “Ouisa,” a track that accurately teases the deeply inspired blend of yoga music, planetarium background noise, pure tones and cacophonous sci-fi percussion that characterizes “Aporia”’s next 39 minutes.

Stevens described “Aporia” as “an homage to the beauty and depth of analog sound, and how it can evoke deeply felt human emotions.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the track “Misology,” which features haunting sopranos over a strained electric guitar, the resulting sound tugging at a very specific emotion, somewhere in the vein of fear mixed with nostalgia. 

But several other tracks, too, have an undeniably narrative feel to them. “Backhanded Cloud” sounds remarkably like that part in a movie where someone goes back in time and something goes horribly wrong. “Eudaimonia” feels distinctly like a wistful pan flute singing farewell.

It seems that the whole album is in dialogue. You can almost hear a call and response between the percussive elements and the melody, the instruments in continuous conversation, a circuitous exchange looking for meaning. “What are you waiting for?” Stevens asks on the track “The Runaround” in some of the only vocals on the album, the aggressive beat demanding a response. “An open door?” he asks again. The answer is unclear.

The shortest instrumental tracks, 33-second “Palinodes” and 35-second “For Raymond Scott,” reflect this idea of furthering this search for “an answer,” their brief moments filled with tentative notes which each seem to ask questions of their own.

Even on a technical level, the album is absolutely remarkable. “Glorious You” features a pseudo-string arrangement that provides a perfect example of the sheer musical talent that is Sufjan Stevens, one we came to know on “The BQE” and, more recently, on “The Decalogue.” “Climb That Mountain” has increasingly intense vocals which soar over chaotic background noise. It is at once inspiring and unsettling. 

At this point, you may be wondering: Is “Aporia” Sufjan the same Sufjan who gave us “Carrie & Lowell”? The same Sufjan who gave us “Illinois”? The same Sufjan who gave us (God forbid) “Mystery of Love”?

A simple answer would be no.

“It’s not an album that he would make on his own and it’s not one that I could make on my own. But we did it,” Brams said in an Asthmatic Kitty Records interview. Yet this assertion should come with a caveat. Some tracks hint at Sufjans of bygone eras and are inflicted with his characteristic flair. “Agathon” draws heavily on “Age of Adz,” as does “Afterworld Alliance.” “Ataraxia” hints at perhaps a space version of “Visions of Gideon.” “Aporia” is recognizable as a Sufjan Stevens album.

But to see “Aporia” as only a Sufjan product is to ignore the history between him and Lowell. Despite his own lack of trained musical ability, his father was the one who actively encouraged him to pursue music. “This record is a synthesis of all of that history — it’s a reflection of the ideology that’s got us through this life, a do-it-yourself co-collaboration,” Stevens said in the same interview. “Aporia” is a tribute to that relationship.

Above all, “Aporia” carries a message that is highly applicable to our new reality. “What is happening? What happens next? What can we do? What now?” the two wrote in a joint album release message on the AKR website.

And the answer is that we simply don’t know. No one knows what tomorrow holds. Hell, no one knows what the next hour holds. 

Aporia. We’re at a loss.

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