Sufjan Stevens – ‘Convocations’ review: 49-song ambient opus is moving, but hard work

The indie icon's grief-stricken record, inspired by the death of his father, runs into several hours, poignant material swaddled in layers you long to peel back

Sufjan Stevens’ back catalogue is filled with complex creations. His genre-hopping music – which over the past two decades has seen him deftly utilise baroque pop (‘Michigan’), glitchy experimental electronics (‘The Age of Adz’) and indie-folk (‘Carrie & Lowell’) – is often accompanies bold and brave concepts. 2017’s collaborative record ‘Planetarium’ was inspired by the Solar System; ‘Michigan’ is a homage to his home state, referencing the places and people of the Great Lake State; and the magnificent ‘Carrie & Lowell’ explored his complicated relationship with late mother Carrie.

His latest release, the instrumental epic ‘Convocations’, is deeply personal. Last September, two days after the release of Stevens’ previous album ‘The Ascension’, his father passed away. This two-and-a-half hour long blockbuster’s 49 tracks are split into five ‘sonic cycles’, each set out to replicate a stage of grief, the entire collection a personal response to the loss. Recorded during lockdown, it’s a powerful opus about loss, and one that’ll resonate given the incomparable global tragedies of the past year.

Stevens is no stranger to instrumental works – see 2001’s ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ – but ‘Convocations’ is perhaps the most ambitious. Leaning heavily on ambient music and influenced by the likes of Brian Eno and electronic DJ Wolfgang Voigt, it’s technically and conceptually impressive, but can be hard work for the listener.

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Opening section ‘Meditations’ is a reflection of the early stages of mourning. Filled with cinematic strings and subtle synth bubbles, it’s at its most interesting when the layers build. Take ‘Meditation V’, where jarring distorted sounds grow from bold synth notes, resulting in a cacophony which slowly fades away, mimicking the early confusion and knotty feelings of immediate grief.

In later cycles, though, ‘Convocations’ stutters. Second volume ‘Lamentations’ is crunchy, filled with electronic textures and uncomfortable dissonance; these clashing layers begin to grate. ‘Lamentation I’ enthrals with its ethereal synths and fractured music box twinkles, but by the time you get to ‘Lamentation IV’, the soundscape is cluttered with sci-fi sound effects. It’s pulled back in moments like ‘Lamentation VII’, with is harpsichord-styled sounds and swooping melodies – but due to the short track lengths, these sounds ebb away before they can be fully explored.

Third section ‘Revelations’ is bolstered by impressive production, but often errs towards laboured atmospheric soundscapes, and by the time you slog through ‘Celebrations’ and wind up at closing collection ‘Incantations’, you’ve been listening for several hours. ‘Convocations’ is a mature work, but its length and intricate creation makes it difficult to get under its skin, the record’s wonderful honesty hidden behind layers that you wish could be peeled back.

Details

Release date: May 6

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Record label: Asthmatic Kitty

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