A version of this review will run in the October 28th edition of The Envoy.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway snakes menacingly across 11.7 miles of Brooklyn and Queens, mangling neighborhoods and hubcaps as few roads can. The brainchild of infamous urban planner/neighborhood-destroyer Robert Moses and completed in 1960, it is, in ways literal and metaphorical, one of the ugliest things in New York City.
All the more reason to write a concept album devoted it—right?
Stevens has carved out quite a niche for himself in early 21st Century American indie music. The sheer ambition of his projects has demanded the attention of music critics and a mushrooming constituency of fans for several years now. His is a musical style—not unlike New York City, come to think of it--that insists on doing things on an almost laughably large scale. He composes all the music, and sings and performs every instrument on all his albums. And he plans to record an album of songs thematically tied to each one of the fifty states (he’s already done Michigan and Illinois).
He is an artist with a range that is truly rare, making use of lavish arrangements that can haunt us, tickle us, or beckon us toward a quiet state of somber contemplation—and that’s just the melodies. Stevens’ meticulously-researched and heartfelt lyrics have touched on everything from the personal life of a Chicago serial killer to the rise and fall of industrial production in Detroit to a sorrowful ode to a lost friend.
BQE was originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2007, and was performed with a 36-person orchestra as part of its Next Wave Festival. The songs on BQE, like much of Stevens’ work, are lyricless and extravagantly composed. Piano, flute, trumpet, violin and clarinet can be heard over rising and falling tempos. But to talk about individual songs would almost be to negate the point of this album. That’s because it’s just as much a film as an album. Shot on a combination of super 8mm and 16mm film, BQE uses a triptych visual structure (three side-by-side frames playing simultaneously) with Stevens’ original score creating a mood that takes the viewer on a head-spinning journey up, down and around one of America’s most notorious roadways.
And as a nerd who collected maps of cities instead of baseball cards as a kid, it’s right up my alley (or… right up my six-lane, shoulderless, pot hole-laden behemoth).
But my enthusiasm is born of a very specific agglomeration of quirky proclivities. I’d have a hard time seeing Joe Schmoe (or even, frankly, Joe Educated Hipster) being able to sink his teeth very far into this one.
It opens with a credit sequence that introduces us to three hula-hooping, superhero-costume-clad young women: Botanica (Latin for “pertaining to plants”); Quantus (Latin for “how much”); and Electress (a term that was used to refer to the wife or widow of a politician in the Holy Roman Empire). Botanica’s costume is emblazoned with a “B” across the front, Quantus’ with a “Q,” and Electress’ with an “E.”
Is Stevens likening the rat race of the present-day U.S. to the militarism and exploitation of the Late Roman Empire? Or is he just taking us on a manic joyride through his adopted hometown?
It may be a little of both. But I’m not sure if it matters either way. Stevens’ concerns seem to lay with representing urban space with a frenetic whimsy that mirrors, yet accelerates, the way it really is.
Speaking of mirrors, the side-by-side, triple split-screen format of the film is exploited to interesting (if overdone) effect in stylized editing that presents what looks like an endlessly-reproducing wall of moving cars. This effect and others are employed in a way that tries to augment the musical score; the more frenzied and unwieldy the visuals, the more complex and climactic the music. In this way, what we see onscreen resembles a narrative.
But that leads this superhighway of musical and urban exploration straight toward one of its biggest weaknesses: the outlines of a coherent story that we are able to discern, are pretty meaningless. If, for example, the visuals of the film had included archival footage that could help tell the whole story of the evolution of the BQE and its affect on the neighborhoods it winds so rudely through, the sum total would have been a more satisfying (if less avant guard) visual and auditory experience.
The world is a complicated place. And Sufjan Stevens, it seems, doesn’t want to make anything feel simple. None of his music does, that’s for sure. That idea—that life is just… complex--might have been at the heart of his thinking in doing this project. Which is why it’s oddly incongruous that BQE ends on an image of a throng of cyclists lazily reclaiming the northbound lanes of the expressway, in no particular hurry as they ride under a string of overpasses. We’re left wondering: was that the point of this whole thing? That cars are bad?
Maybe that was part of it. But somehow, I bet there’s more to the story--even though there isn’t really much of a story at all.