Mon 26 Mar 2012
During the weekend, even Ars takes an occasional break from evaluating third-generation iPads or hypothesizing about Microsoft patents. Weekend Ar(t)s is a chance to share what we're watching/listening/reading or otherwise consuming this week.
Sufjan Stevens is the modern musician for intellectuals. He has the academic background, the intricate orchestral pop, the bevy of nerdy conceptual albums (covering topics from states to holidays, and even bridges). He once included "Decatur" and "Emancipator" within the same rhyme scheme for crying out loud.
Needless to say, news of a new Stevens EP leaked in February and caused much excitement. The project would be a collaborative effort, with Stevens forming a group called s/s/s. That meant initially pairing up with Son Lux, another heavily orchestral indie musician who once wrote an entire album in a single month, and composed for yMusic. No stretch there.
The surprise came from the inclusion of that final "s." It referred to Serengeti—a rapper who happens to share a label with Son Lux. Like many Ars staffers, he calls Chicago home and playfully weaves it into his music. Serengeti's original album referenced things from WCKG to Portillo's. Considering the emcee's affinity for concepts and hyper-referential vocals, perhaps only his musical style would truly be a stretch for Stevens.
Beak & Claw finally debuted this past week and early listens indicate it's a must for any Stevens completionist. Be warned up front: there's no outright orchestral or folk influence here. It's foreign territory for Stevens; a combo of electronica and hip-hop that should raise an eyebrow only on paper. Ultimately these four songs feature all the charming nuances of any of Stevens work, demonstrating that his musical intelligence can transcend genre.
Beak & Claw's first single, "Museum Day," is particularly indicative of this. Serengeti's verse mentions things like "dinosaur museums" and "double, triple dares," while taking a more relaxed tempo than most hip-hop (think Drake in terms of cadence). A very soothing electronic string hook is laid underneath to carry things musically. Stevens blends his own vocals (through vocoder naturally) with this to create a soundcape verging on ambient. During the chorus when he, accompanied by a familiar choir, vocally soars over a cymbal-heavy percussion beat, it's as genuinely beautiful as anything you'd find on Seven Swans.
The rest of this debut s/s/s effort reaches similar heights (possibly even higher ones, my favorite track is embedded above) and leaves a listener wanting more. It's not the first time Sufjan Stevens has been fused with hip-hop (thank Tor and his Illinoize remixes), but it's the first time he's concocted that marriage on his terms. Stevens has always been willing to challenge himself (ambitions of writing albums for all 50 states for instance), but the work of s/s/s shows he's capable of doing it through composition, not just concept. Here's hoping Beak & Claw isn't the last opportunity for that.