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Sufjan Stevens rises anew on “Aporia”

| Monday, April 20, 2020

Lina Domenella | The Observer

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

— Walt Whitman

Eight songs into “Aporia,” Sufjan Stevens changes course. The album, a collaboration with Stevens’ step-father and label manager Lowell Brams, begins in a characteristic vein. Meditations on familiar discord, fatalism, the end of times. Rather than sing, Stevens communicates through probing synths and grim, archaic song titles. Yet on “Palinodes,” named for pieces in which the artist retracts a sentiment, the tone shifts, and Stevens begins his ascent.

Up the scale Stevens climbs, as he heaps praises upon God, upon renowned composer Raymond Scott, upon his late mother. Drums ripple across the synth-scape. Tension builds. And on “Runaround,” the 17th song on the album, Stevens finally delivers his first lines: “Give me a name / More than a flame / More than a metaphor.” Finally, the sounds recede, and on “Eudaimonia,” the penultimate track, Stevens delivers a warm, compelling thesis on human flourishing.

Grand tonal shifts such as this one appear throughout Stevens’ work. With his third album, “Michigan,” the Brooklyn singer-songwriter famously announced plans to make an album about each of the fifty states. “Seven Swans,” his next album, focused on the Bible instead. In the years since, Stevens has written a ballet, two Christmas albums, and even a second state-themed album (“Illinois”), among other projects. And “Aporia,” meaning “an irresolvable contradiction,” is itself a shift for Stevens, his first foray into New Age music.

Stevens enters the genre wearing his inspirations on his sleeve. “INFORMA APORIA,” a playlist he released before the album, includes work from Vangelis (think “Blade Runner”), Enya (“Only Time”), and Mort Garson (“Mother Earth’s Plantasia,” a houseplant-themed cult classic). The 21 songs on “Aporia” give ample space for their sounds to shine through. And ultimately, this turns out to be one of the album’s greatest weaknesses. In a genre that transcends convention, “Aporia” feels tethered to its influences.

To fans and critics, this will come as no small disappointment. The mythology surrounding Stevens is almost Whitmanesque. With each album, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter is expected to reinvent himself in a way subversive yet appealing. His style must evolve, and yet his performance must reflect a lifetime of mastery. It can be done — he showed us so on “Illinois,” “Age of Adz,” “Carrie & Lowell” — and so it must. On “Aporia,” however, it isn’t.

And yet this album, the culmination of years of experimentation by Stevens and Brams, does not feel like a footnote or side project. On “Carrie & Lowell,” written shortly after the death of Stevens’ mother, the singer-songwriter used synths to communicate an ineffable sorrow. Starting on that same note, but building into a meditation on human flourishing, Stevens opens a new chapter on “Aporia.”

And for stepfather Brams, “Aporia” is a capstone project of sorts. When Stevens was young, the two bonded over their love of music. Brams introduced Stevens to The Beatles, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan; he loaned Stevens his first piano; he bought him his first four-track cassette recorder. And when Stevens recorded “A Sun Came,” his 1999 solo debut, Brams founded the record label Asthmatic Kitty Records to release the album. Now “Aporia,” released on that same label two decades years later, marks Bram’s retirement from the music industry.

On “Impossible Soul,” the closing track to his 2010 album “Age of Adz,” Stevens sings, “Boy, we can do much more together / It’s not so impossible.” The lines protrude from an album that otherwise argues “words are futile devices,” “I know you won’t listen to me,” and “I want it all for myself.” More than a contradiction, Stevens’ closing comes off as a last gasp of hope, a desperate prayer that maybe it’s not so impossible.

Synergistic, ascendent, life-affirming, “Aporia” feels like a manifestation of that hope, a proclamation of human flourishing shared between close friends. Whether the imagination on this record matches its ambition is a question that recurs throughout. But for Stevens, “Aporia” is a landmark project nonetheless.

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