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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Enjoy Your Rabbit


1) Year Of The Asthmatic Cat; 2) Year Of The Monkey; 3) Year Of The Rat; 4) Year Of The Ox; 5) Year Of The Boar; 6) Year Of The Tiger; 7) Year Of The Snake; 8) Year Of The Sheep; 9) Year Of The Rooster; 10) Year Of The Dragon; 11) Enjoy Your Rabbit; 12) Year Of The Dog; 13) Year Of The Horse; 14) Year Of Our Lord.

General verdict: Complex, pointless, repetitive, and overcooked electronic art from Sisyphus Stevens.

This is how Sufjan Stevens himself describes the creative process behind this record: "I put together argumentative essays, stanzas of free verse poetry, persuasive dissertations and asser­tions, using algorithms and geometric proofs and anthropomorphic relationships between animals, to prove the existence of God based on the 12-year lunar calendar". Of course, this is a statement loaded with self-irony, so do not take it too seriously. Take more seriously the following state­ment from the same interview: "Many people say the same thing: that they inevitably end up visualizing a place or a picture when listening (carefully) to the album".

Personally, I love the process of visualization. The best kind of music is the one that pulls your heart strings, but the second best kind of music is the one that is easily converted to pictures in your mind — like the Giant Serpent hiding in the opening riff of Black Sabbath's ʽInto The Voidʼ, or the treacherous asteroid fields threatening to destroy your spaceship in Pink Floyd's ʽInter­stellar Overdriveʼ. And I totally respect the ambitiousness and earnestness of Sufjan Stevens when he set about creating a large, sprawling, complex electronic album about the twelve animals that constitute the calendar cycle. I mean, if Saint-Saëns himself reasonably got away with an idea like that once, why not Sufjan Stevens? He also comes with two big "S".

Most people are familiar with Stevens' electronic art through the much later Age Of Adz, but, as this record clearly points out, his fascination with electronics began almost at the same time as his fascination with everything else. The album is not purely electronic: Stevens uses plenty of guitars and keyboards as well — but he still ends up processing and sampling them so that, in the end, everything lies strictly within digital territory. And, as usual, there are no time limits — compositions can range from 3-4 minutes and up to 8-9, with ʽYear Of The Horseʼ triumphantly ending the main set with 13 minutes of non-stop electronic bombast.

The main problem with the album — as it is, frankly, with most Sufjan Stevens albums — is that it never seems to properly understand what it is that it wants to be. In several of the man's brief commentaries on the record he tends to stress how much time and effort it took to prepare all the samples, how personal the experience had become to him over that time, and how he tried to make it all as symbolic as possible. That's all fine and dandy, but it is also clear that Enjoy Your Rabbit is going to be viewed in the context of all the other electronic music out there, and while I am no huge expert on the genre, I know enough to insist that Sufjan's experiment pretty much falls through every available crack there is in the electronic foundation.

If you think of electronic music as a continuum where you find, say, Aphex Twin on one end  (strictly and steadily beat-based dance music for robots and aliens) and Animal Collective on the other end (chaotic, far-out-there, hysterical soundscapes to blow your mind), Enjoy Your Rabbit does not compare favorably with either of these. Most of its tracks are too slow, too conventional on the rhythmic side to be club-danceable; but they are also much too quiet, repetitive, and restrained to attract your attention in an Animal Collective kind of way. The results are moderate­ly weird, for sure, but this hardly qualifies as «music for the body», and even less so as «music for the heart». Its only saving grace is to be found in the alleged symbolism, and this is where things get really complicated and controversial.

Thus, ʽYear Of The Monkeyʼ begins our cycle (for some reason, Stevens has mixed up the standard running order) with what sounds like a mash-up between an avantgarde jazz track (with atonal brass passages all over) and glitch, moving through several different sections and probably trying to reflect the fussiness and chaos associated with monkeys. Rationally thinking, it is a clever idea, yes it is, but do glitch and free-form jazz truly form a natural, inspired, and inspiring combination? My own process of visualization seems to be blocked by this combo — at best I can come up with something like «a bunch of drunk New Orleanian musicians in a funeral pro­cession being attacked by little nanite insects», and this (a) has nothing to do with monkeys and (b) might seem much more awesome from this description than it is in reality. Yes, Sufjan Stevens is an obsessive combobulator, synthesizer, and musical architect — it's just that his combos, syntheses, and completed edifices consistently strike me as pointless monstrosities, and every single track here is consistent with that consistency.

Above everything else, this record has no sonic depth to it. All the tracks sound exactly the way that electronic stuff sounds when it is created in homebrewn conditions. With a good producer, ʽYear Of The Ratʼ might have ended up sounding like a true psychedelic carnival; as it is, it ends up sounding almost chipmunked, and I cannot for the life of me take it seriously — unless we remember that chipmunks are somewhat similar to rats, but even then, it still sounds like some stupid soundtrack to a magic show for kids, and, honestly, I do not give a damn about how many different layers of sound there are here. In reality, the track is static, boring, lacks a sense of pur­pose, and buries a few nice melodic ideas (like the little xylophone passage at the beginning) in a sea of messy polyphonic repetition.

Finally, another significant beef is that the goddamn tracks simply sound too much alike. In a conceptual album dedicated to twelve different animals with twelve obviously different charac­ters, you'd expect a lot of emotional diversity — in reality, you get pretty much the same feel of a fussy, by-the-book magic show in every single occasion. Yes, some of the tracks are glitchier than others; some have choral harmonies, others are purely instrumental; but when your ʽYear Of The Tigerʼ sets precisely the same mood as your ʽYear Of The Roosterʼ, you really begin to wonder if the effort was worth anything in the first place. I was marginally amused that ʽYear Of The Boarʼ was the one track to feature an insane gallop tempo (because few things are as terri­fying, apparently, as the light speed charge of a mature boar with zodiacal significance), but out­side of that, all that was left to do was pick up the associations — thus, the title track sounds like an homage to King Crimson, all jagged and crooked riffs and tricky time signatures; only it is stiff and robotic, compared to the real thing. And nothing to do with rabbits.

On a serious note, if you listen hard enough, you will discern many of the same folk motives that Sufjan had already showed a passion for on his first record — at the heart of this electronic mish­mash lies a very traditionalist approach to music-making, and many of these tracks could be played on, say, acoustic guitar and flute. But this would not make them more interesting: the very point of the record is to merge the old stuff with electronics, and I am sorry to say that I see no point in that point, as the opposite ends burn each other up rather than bring out the perfection in each other. Needless to say, this is just my own aesthetic opinion. You are free to enjoy your rabbit — I'd rather go for duck soup.

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