Sufjan Stevens: The BQE – 92/100
Osso: Run Rabbit Run – 76/100
Stevens remakes the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — and gets a makeover himself
Though we’re nearing the five-year anniversary of his last proper studio album, Sufjan Stevens has stayed active since his landmark Illinois. In November 2007 he debuted The BQE, a multimedia tribute to the seemingly mundane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that included an orchestra, three simultaneously projected films and live hula hoopers, and that was performed over three nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ever the perfectionist, Stevens took two years to record and edit this combination CD/DVD set which presents the project in its entirety with an essay by Stevens, a comic book and a vintage View-Master reel added for good measure. With his sweeping, swooning, swirling orchestral arrangements leading the way, it’s an utterly enchanting amalgam of Gershwin and Warhol, Copland and Brakhage, somehow weaving traffic jams, grainy cityscapes and construction sites into a rich tapestry of percolating humanity. It’s his most ambitious undertaking to date, and while it presents no obvious singles or easy entry points, he pulls it off without it feeling pretentious or ponderous.
But The BQE isn’t Stevens’ first album-long orchestral experiment. His most chin-stroke-inducing work to date, 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, has long been his catalog’s electronic-music outlier—a maze of meticulously arranged and texturally dense instrumentals that each represent a symbol of the Chinese Zodiac. Now Osso, the New York- and Berlin-based string quartet that performed the string arrangements for Stevens’ Illinois, provides an alternate-universe interpretation. Commissioned by Stevens and featuring the arrangements of six composers, Run Rabbit Run re-imagines the conceptual song cycle as a remarkably pliable and surprisingly tangible avant-garde composition, its crackling glitches and imposing synthesizers translated into gorgeous sweeping trills, scratchy bow scrapes and sweetly sighing refrains. Thoroughly deconstructed but retaining the spirit of Stevens’ original vision, it offers more evidence that the test of a great song is how ripe it is for reinterpretation.