Sufjan Stevens seems to be on a one-man mission to prove that the art of the concept album did not go out with lava lamps, bellbottoms, and draft cards. After all, he made his name by turning out pieces of a concept so big (his one-album-per-U.S.-state project) that no one ever expects him to get to the end of it. Sure, he’s had time off for good behavior, turning out stuff like Seven Swans, but fun’s fun and big ideas were still boiling on the pot, so Stevens leaped wholeheartedly into The BQE.
You’ve got to hand it to the guy: Albums about Illinois and Michigan are one thing, but the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, one of New York City’s most notorious, gnarly, unsightly, and downright unnavigable roadways, does not exactly leap to mind as a likely theme for an epic composition. Nevertheless, Stevens pressed boldly onward, and in November 2007, he premiered The BQE at BAM, playing it as the live soundtrack to a film that he (naturally) wrote and directed himself. Finally, two years after the fact, the rest of us get to hear the multi-instrumentalist’s ode to one of his adopted hometown’s most unpopular traffic terrorizers.
Unlike those aforementioned pieces, The BQE isn’t the sound of Stevens trying to write the next Smile or anything. With the exception of one section (out of 13) that utilizes electronics and goes for a swirling, techno-flavored feel, this is an old-school orchestral piece, armed with a full complement of winds, brass, and strings. And while there are touches of modernism, at times Stevens goes for a straight-up Romantic style. After an opening fantasia of sorts, there are some bold brass fanfares, and from there on, the piece moves through a wide spectrum of tonal colors, with whispering flutes, sweeping string lines, elegant trumpet statements, and more, all rising and falling in the service of the whisper-to-a-scream dynamics. And since those dynamics are presumably worked out to coincide with the progress of the accompanying film, Stevens has thrown in a DVD of those visuals to go along with the CD, so you can soak up the whole experience from the safety of your sofa.
While The BQE might not put Stevens in the running as the most groundbreaking voice in contemporary classical music, it’s certainly a damn sight better than the orchestral efforts squeezed out over the last several years by the likes of Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, et al. It’s a mood piece first and foremost, and one with a crucial visual element, so pack a bunch of your friends into a car and drive from DUMBO to Astoria, plop yourself in front of somebody’s home entertainment center, and have yourselves a multi-media BQE party. Just remember to allow yourself plenty of time for the ride home, in case of traffic.