Fans of Sufjan Stevens have been right to wonder what the hell he's been up to for the last four years. After 2005's amazing Illinois album, subsequent outtakes-and-leftovers The Avalanche, and a compilation of Christmas songs (Songs For Christmas), Sufjan seemed to disappear behind the scenes of his Asthmatic Kitty record label. Then there were murmurings of him working on a new project, and in 2007 it was played for the public: a longform orchestral piece about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in New York with an accompanying film. This, however, still doesn't explain the two year gap between the performance and its release as The BQE, but whatever.
Composing a long orchestral work may seem a bit out of Sufjan's league, but take a listen to the Michigan and Illinois albums again. They possess a symphonic structure in some regards, as well as containing overtly orchestral music and instrumentals. The simplest way to describe the sound of The BQE is to say that it's like Sufjan wrote an entire 40 minute album of that kind of material, but there are some key differences. As this one is entirely instrumental, there's a greater variety of melodies and ideas, as well as a true symphonic scope to the proceedings. It's as superficial as the way the piece is divided up into "Movements" and "Interludes" (as well as a Prelude and Postlude, naturally), but also as deep as the way some of those melodies and ideas are referred to or varied over the course of the work. I won't go into much detail as far as the music goes, but I did want to highlight the sequence of 'Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise' and 'Movement IV: Traffic Shock', which lie at the heart of The BQE and are its best moments. The former contains one of the best orchestral hooks he delivers here, recalling 'Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run' from Illinois; the latter is an electronic, videogame-y sounding surprise, providing a refreshing break from the symphonic nature of the album while still riffing on the melodies of the previous track.
Sufjan has been making a lot of comments in the press lately about his probably-dead 50 States Project and how he's wondering what the point of the album as a format is, and something like The BQE is his first stab at getting beyond the current format. Whether he continues down this path is impossible to say, but allow me to step outside the bounds of a review of the music and address the "mixed media" portion of this project. The film portion of The BQE is about what you'd expect, lots of shots of traffic, driving, artsy night shots of stoplights and headlights, etc. You'll maybe watch it twice and only listen to the music from there on out. I can't really speak to the 3D Viewmaster reel(!) that comes with the CD version since I don't have a Viewmaster, and I don't have access to the 40 page comic book that comes with the vinyl version. Meanwhile, the longwinded philosophical essay by Sufjan printed in the booklet is, quite frankly, a bit too indulgent and pretentious for my liking. Ultimately I have to wonder who this stuff is for, other than hardcore fans. If this is his solution to an existential crisis about music, songwriting, and the album format, it seems like a misguided-but-charmingly-niche one.
Like most projects that seem unusual for an artist you love, The BQE is neither terrible nor a complete triumph; neither essential nor forgettable. It's an interesting, borderline-challenging diversion from Sufjan's usual output that will only appeal to hardcore fans or those with an open mind about orchestral/symphonic music. Personally, however, I hope he doesn't continue down this path, mixed media or even orchestral. Instead I wish he'd just make a damn album already.