The Fey Highwayman

On Sufjan Stevens's indulgent, hula-hoop-plagued BQE symphony

All my friends who don't live in New York hate New York. Near as I can tell, they imagine the city as one giant, loathsome American Apparel ad, a crass, joyless, narcissistic, careerist, emaciated, insincere, hopelessly uptight, suffocatingly twee cesspool of white-privilege Williamsburg hipsterdom. I'm paraphrasing; they're stereotyping. Mashed into the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Saturday night, beholding the third and final sold-out performance of Sufjan Stevens's half-hour symphony dedicated to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, with roughly 15,000 musicians crammed onstage unleashing whirling, whimsical dervishes as five vegan-thin dancers cheerfully gyrate with glowing neon hula hoops and three video screens blare arty auto-erotic footage overhead, I revel in what my friends are missing even as I concede their point. Only in New York. This is precious, precious, precious stuff.

Let me say up front that the world is a far more interesting and wondrous place with Sufjan in it; furthermore, one of his songs frequently makes me cry. We'll come back to that. For now, I have the hula-hoopers to contend with. They are a wee bit unnerving, the hula-hoopers. A toxic overload of Cute. The program includes a two-page essay, penned by Sufjan himself, explaining exactly how hula hoops pertain to the BQE, and to the symphony he has written in its honor. Something to do with the wheel, perpetual motion, the rotation of the Earth, etc. "As a symbolic construction, the hoop is an existential goldmine," Sufjan writes. Oh, do go on. The BQE is Sufjan's first symphony, one of myriad distractions from his (suffocatingly twee) "write an album for all 50 states" enterprise; "rock and roll is dead," he recently announced. His approach here is sheepish and self-conscious—the hula-hoopers aren't a metaphor but a distraction. Subtract them and the video projections (pure Wes Anderson, with their coyly formal title cards and fey shoebox-diorama odes to tires, brake lights, bodegas, prominent landmarks, and yet more hula-hooping), and you've got a tremendously elaborate but frequently clumsy sonic spectacle, way too cluttered and way too loud, with one of Sufjan's ornate and intricate orchestral-pop melodies occasionally wriggling loose and breathing free for 30 seconds or so before it's overwhelmed again. Every so often, an abrupt, triumphant final flourish—ta-dah!—indicates the end of a movement. Flawed but ambitious, etc. You know the drill.

Subtract all that (including Sufjan) and make the music three times as good, and one-third of the crowd would've shown up and enjoyed it a third as much. We stand in unison and rain delighted applause upon The BQE. And after intermission, during Part II of our program ("Sufjan Plays the Hits"), plying selections from his forays into that dead medium of rock, his manner is more precious, more precious, more precious still. The banter alone—good lord. Sufjan holds aloft several sheets of paper. "This is a story I wrote this morning," he says. "It's called 'Toilet Paper Dolls.' " It is far less toxic and yet way, way cuter. You just wanna take this guy home and pour him some Yoo-Hoo.

No telling if we'll ever hear from, or hear at all, The BQE again. (The lobby merch table turned away plenty of disappointed folks trying to buy the soundtrack, in any event.) This is no great loss. It's a lovable but unwieldy beast, plagued by overzealous flutes, braying horns, clamoring drums. In its slower, quieter, more demure moments (i.e., when everyone isn't playing at full volume simultaneously, the musical equivalent to the New York Stock Exchange trading floor), it achieves an ominous gravitas, but just a few minutes later, BLEARGH, everyone is playing at full volume simultaneously again. They are simulating a traffic jam, you see. This particular metaphor is way too apt.

The joke, of course, is that when Sufjan plays the hits, those dead-rock numbers, his approach is barely different. This was an awkward but logical leap. His songs are still overstuffed, plagued by flutes, struggling to unclutter themselves and lay bare the sweet and often truly affecting pathos that drives them. Verily, "Casmir Pulaski Day," from 2005's [grits teeth] Come on Feel the Illinoise, makes me well up. The banjo, in most hands, is a deal-killer, and usually is in Sufjan's hands too. But here, backed by just a smattering of choral flourish, adorned by far less ostentatious woodwinds, the result is lovely and devastating, a childlike lament to a young love cut down by "cancer of the bone" (those words sung like a Seussian nursery rhyme) that earns the tears it jerks. Midway through The BQE, I remember it's Sufjan's song and he'll probably play it, and I start tearing up right then.

He also plays Illinoise's "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," his dour but equally lovely ballad for the clown-suited psychopath, the tune that ends: "And in my best behavior/I am really just like him."

My New York–hating friends seize on those lines as cheap, lazy songwriting—ah, we're all serial killers, you see. And yes, it does underscore what's obnoxious about this whole 50-states business, Sufjan's tendency to pull random names and places and cultural phenomena out of the encyclopedia and awkwardly graft his own emotions onto them: My true love died of cancer on Casimir Pulaski Day. But this version of "Gacy" is odd—on the fly, he cuts out the lines with the grisliest details ("He took off all their clothes for them," etc.), and apologizes afterward: "I get really grossed out." He mumbles something about letting go of the emotions behind a song, a poem, a story. Finally, he declares: "I think I need to put an end to that song once and for all." We applaud, thoroughly confused.

I'm not clear on why he says this exactly, whether he's unhappy with the tune's occasionally cheap sentiment or just its prurient details. In any event, it's proof of how much thought goes into this, to what extent self-doubt and second-guessing can plague him. It also suggests evolution. The night's real highlight is a new dead-rock tune, "Majesty Snowbird." At 10 solid minutes, it's reliably sprawling and overwrought, and before it begins, Sufjan and the non-orchestral portion of his band all slap on giant theater-production wings. Cute, cute, cute. But the melody that beats back this excess is a killer, an echo of angelic voices and melodramatic strings that somehow makes Sufjan sound even more isolated and lonely. The chorus it eventually arrives at is simple and unencumbered by useless almanac trivia:

Don't stop
Don't break
You can delight because
you have a place
Quiet room
I need you now.

I'm seizing on that I need you now, squeezed out in his frail falsetto, as evidence that Sufjan Stevens doesn't need a 15,000-piece orchestra and reams of road-atlas whimsy to hit his mark, to tear you up as he brings the house down. It's the mark of a mega-talent who can one day ditch the crutches, dismantle the training wheels, shed the wings, and cast aside the hula hoops.

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