Lowell Brams has been part of singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens life since Stevens was barely out of toddlerhood. Brams – the titular “Lowell” of Stevens’ excellent 2015 solo LP Carrie & Lowell – is Stevens’ stepfather, yes, but, moreso a kind of guiding presence in his musical and/or public lives. Brams introduced Stevens, then a boy, to Bob Dylan and bought him his first keyboard and his first four-track recorder. He even formed the label Asthmatic Kitty to release Stevens’ debut in 1999. This year marks Brams’ retirement from the management of the label.
Yes, much of this ground has been covered – but it’s worth rehashing, if only for the purpose of ripening the context. Now, 11 years since the collaboration Music for Insomnia, the two have come back together with Aporia, a 21-track suite of New Age synth improvisations culled from years of free-form experimentation.
Now, I, for one, laud Stevens for his atypical approach to “rock stardom,” for lack of a better or more fitting phrase. When most egomaniacs could ride the wave of all that Oscar buzz or bleed the stone dry on state-themed mini-opuses, Stevens continues to struggle and strive for meaningful work alongside collaborators who provide their own meanings. But Aporia, despite the breathlessness from the indie press, is no masterwork and, if anything, undersells the found family Stevens and Brams have constructed all these years.
The duo reaches – and sometimes succeeds. Stevens cited film scores as his inspiration for the jamming that was edited into Aporia. On the single “The Unlimited” and elsewhere, for example, listeners can trace the hints of Blade Runner in the subtly gated drums or warm, Vangelis-soaked synth washes. But Boards of Canada have done more reverent things with the points of reference.
Stevens surely also is toying with narrative expectations for his work with the LP’s titles, which range from concise devices (“The Runaround,” with its excellent twinkling keys, or “Climb That Mountain”) to college-level O.E.D. quips (the too-short “Palinodes,” “Misology”). But, all in all, the LP tries to make up in quirkiness what it lacks in delivery. For every mournful “Glorious You,” with its trebly ascension into celestial strata, there is the tone-saturated but aimless “Conciliation,” which never fulfills the punch of its title. For every “Afterworld Alliance,” with its sense of oneiric dread, there is misguided sleight-of-hand like “For Raymond Scott,” which doesn’t live up to the example it references. “Ataraxia” throws its title to the wind with winding passages, not tumultuous by any means but far from sedate. Elsewhere, “The Runaround” shows promise but there’s never a sure-fire follow-up to its sentiments.
Start to finish, Aporia – an unresolvable internal contradiction (“You can trust me: all politicians are liars,” the politician said) – can be engaging, if only for the careful ear that Brams lends to trimming hours of “tape” to under an hour of performance. This thing, it should be said, is remarkable for its conciseness. But cherry-picking highlights is difficult, which is something that’s tough to write about a Stevens effort, no matter how vague the accomplishment.
Only on “Eudaimonia,” a Greek word roughly translated to “human flourishing or prosperity,” can we hear Stevens’ trademark blending of sentimentality and eulogizing, that careful sense of composition coming to terms with itself. The piece is slight – like much of Aporia, it succeeds in what it suggests, not how it is suggested. But there’s an emotive quality to the synths, the buried faux-percussion and the reverbed new wave guitar lead (artfully recorded) that belies Stevens methods of keeping his material close to his heart. It’s in moments like these that you’ll long to hear the constructions in context, to see Brams and Stevens wandering in the jamming desert, so to speak, to come upon this patch of musical oasis. Yes, Aporia has its moments, yes, but here’s an aporia for you – don’t trust the music critics. They have no idea what they’re talking about.