Sufjan Stevens – The BQE: Life is a Highway

2009_SufjanStevens_TheBQEArtist: Sufjan Stevens
Album: The BQE
Year: 2009
Grade: B

In Brief: Not the follow-up to Illinois that the indie music world was expecting, but an intriguing classical/jazz/baroque-pop/whatever-it-is composition in its own right.

Sufjan Stevens could seemingly do no wrong circa 2005. After the banjo-toting, multi-instrumentalist Renaissance man gained momentum with the critically acclaimed ode to his home state Michigan and the honest, respectably stated songs of faith on the follow-up Seven Swans, he hit the bigtime with Illinois, the bigger, better sequel to the already flawless vision of Michigan. It didn’t top Billboard charts or anything, but the critics were abuzz and Sufjan seemingly reigned the world of indie music that year (and he certainly reigned my personal charts – for the year and ultimately for the decade). Given the man’s steady stream of prolific output, it seemed there was no stopping him from making further headway on his vision of creating an album for each of the 50 States. So Sufjan fans waited. 2006 brought them a hefty B-sides collection, The Avalanche, to cover the material left off of Illinois (or thought up after the fact), and a roundup of Sufjan’s varied Christmas EPs from over the years. Then… nothing. For four long years, we waited for a proper follow-up. It seemed Sufjan was either intimidated by the ridiculous expectations his previous work had created, or he’d just hit writer’s block and was stalling for time. Maybe he needed an extended vacation. I figured I could be patient.

He wasn’t completely absent from the music scene, though. There may have been a lack of recorded output, but he was hard at work, composing an instrumental soundtrack of sorts that would be performed by a live orchestra for a few lucky fans in New York City in November of 2007. That project was called The BQE, an ode to one of the city’s most antiquated, traffic-choked, and mind-boggling highways, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It would be two years hence before the rest of the world got to hear this performance on CD, and while I still don’t consider this to be anything close to a proper follow-up, it’s an intriguing project in its own right. Take out the folk and indie pop influences from most of Sufjan’s past work, enhance the focus on a bevy of orchestral instruments (generally strings, woodwinds, and piano), and sharpen Sufjan’s already specific focus on specific places and events that hint at a larger meaning without coming out and saying it. Now take away all lyrics and all sense of personal narrative – make it simply about the place and the unspoken story that it tells. That’ll give you some idea behind the modus operandi of The BQE. It’s amazing to me that I can get into this on any level, since this mostly classical project, occasionally straying into loose hints of jazz, explores genres that I have always respected but never fully immersed myself in. Hardcore fans of these genres may have a different take, but what little I retained from my music appreciation classes all those years ago brings a smile to my face as I recognize themes that are cleverly varied, tricky time signatures, and climactic moments that for me are as thrilling as a well-timed heavy guitar riff or catchy chorus. If Sufjan’s goal here was to divorce himself from the familiar crutches that he normally relied upon to compose music, and he still came up with something intriguing and listenable, then that’s a success in my book.

But just like some of Sufjan’s lesser projects, there’s a little bit of fat here that could stand to be trimmed. The BQE is presented over the course of thirteen tracks, with seven main movements, all of which are worth sinking one’s teeth into and interesting in the way that they play off of each other. These movements are interspersed with intros, outros, and interludes that do little more for me than taking up space, occasionally wandering into the fruitless noise of The Avalanche‘s worst moments, or just being too short to really justify being tracks unto themselves. The full project is 40 minutes long, a good length for a symphony, but cut out the superfluous stuff and you’re left with just shy of half an hour. You could listen to that half hour’s worth of music twice in the time that it would take you to listen all the way through Illinois, so it does seem that Sufjan came up a bit short here. That said, the missteps are generally minor and there’s nothing as indulgent as the most drawn-out or embarrassing moments on Sufjan’s earliest albums. View the interludes as pieces that set the stage for what’s to come, and then sit back and enjoy the play populated with cars and buildings and urban noise as the story unfolds.


1. Prelude on the Esplanade
We open with… three minutes of noise? Seriously? A long, sustained drone occupies this entire track, which isn’t wholly unpleasant to listen to, somewhat resembling the distant hum of traffic whizzing down the highway, translated into musical form. But thirty to sixty seconds of this probably would have been sufficient to get the point across.

2. Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes
The opening credits sequence (which is literally what this piece is used for if you watch the accompanying DVD) is aptly named, a big horn fanfare with cymbal crashing and trilling flutes, very much like some of the exuberant in-between pieces that act as the glue tying together full songs on some of Sufjan’s vocal records. It’s meant to be a dance for the “Hooper Heroes”, which are this album’s version of the Illinois cheering squad that Sufjan brought out with him on tour, I guess. They are three tackily-costumed women who swing hula hoops around their hips. I wish I were kidding about that.

3. Movement I: In the Countenance of Kings
Getting into the serious meat of the composition now, the first movement is a thing of slow wonder, with its gentle, tinkling piano depicting the dawn of a new day on the soon-to-be-busy roadway. While pieces with very fluid tempos normally get on my nerves, I really enjoy the way that this one morphs from quiet and quaint to grandiose and bombastic rolling gently into each beautiful crescendo. This must be the sound of a really early commute to work, when it’s still quiet enough on the streets for the traffic to not distract from the beauty we might not normally see in a dense urban environment during broad daylight.

4. Movement II: Sleeping Invader
The climactic, hanging note that ends Movement I resolves into the similarly dusky reflection of this slightly more jazz-oriented piece. I say “jazz” because there’s a trumpet or bugle which comes in not too far into the track, punctuating the otherwise traquil atmosphere with its improvisational news report as the shadows begin to grow shorter across the asphalt and the city slowly wakes up. The same note repeats in triplets, over and over and the end of each musical phrase, giving me a mental picture of cars honking at one another in a slowly forming traffic jam, as if making others aware of how slow we’re all going would help matters at all. I like this approach – finding beauty in gridlock that would be frustrating to your average commuter.

5. Interlude I: Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation
If you weren’t looking at the track titles, you could easily get confused as to what constituted an “interlude” versus a “movement”. This particular “interlude” is three minutes long, an eerie patchwork of floating bells and ghostly, wordless “ooh”s (I think the only point at which you hear Sufjan’s voice on the entire record). This isn’t bad – kind of like the instrumental tribute to Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh on The Avalanche – but it degenerates into irritating noise midway through, ratcheting up the tension with its off-key horns and the same nervous guitar tremolo that has been the Achilles heel of otherwise enjoyable Sufjan songs throughout the years.

6. Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise
The centerpiece of the album begins here, with strings dutifully ticking off the time by plucking notes in patterns of seven, creating the backdrop for an off-kilter rhythmic soundscape that doesn’t need a single word to be sung in order to tell us that it’s vintage Sufjan. (The similar baroque math of “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” comes to mind.) Woodwinds begin to flutter about like an increasingly large swarm of bees, which builds beautifully into a thrilling, climactic march of drums and horns thrusting skyward.

7. Movement IV: Traffic Shock
Wait, what the hell just happened? Without missing a beat, Movement III comes crashing headlong into this dissonant dance of purely electronic sounds, the off-key bleeps and bloops seeming quite random at first until it registers that they’re carrying the musical themes of the previous movement forward into the space age, like robots trying to imitate human speech. it’s a brilliant move, probably too avant-garde for some classical music enthusiasts, but it’s my favorite moment on the record because you just pain don’t see it coming. Eventually the conflicting musical elements learn to work together as the drums and woodwinds are brought back in, which is beautiful when you finally glimpse the method to Sufjan’s madness. But at some points, it’s pure computerized rhythm. And this too makes a very sudden transition into the third consecutive movement.

8. Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns
Always the optimist, that Sufjan. Here he uses the horns to sketch around the outlines of his previously established melody and rhythm, as if to suggest that the chaos has found a way to cope and arrange itself into an orderly system of rules and laws. Traffic stops and goes without incident until a few more free-spirited horns worm their way into the mix and gradually melt the piece into something more free-form. I love conflict here between the stately “rhythm section” and the more spontaneous, brassy attitude of the soloists. (Are they considered “soloists” if more than one of them is doing their thing at a time? Ah well.) Eventually these elements figure out a way to cooperate as well, leading to a big “ta-da!” moment that finishes off the most brilliant section of The BQE in grand style.

9. Interlude II: Subi Power Waltz
A short, dreamy woodwind sequence plays here for all of thirty seconds or so, teasing at themes we’ll hear again later.

10. Interlude III: Invisible Accidents

Two interludes in a row? Okay, whatever. This busy, somewhat stressed-out piece interlude takes the primary melody from Movements III and IV and hurries it along, right up to an abrupt end after less than a minute’s time.

11. Movement VI: Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges
The post-workday rush hour begins to wind down here as the sun sets and the city begins to light up. This piece almost feels like it could be a ballet at certain points with its delicate spins and twirls. And there are these big, stately moments where the horns come back in to liven things up. It’s still very busy, but more celebratory, as if to indicate that the masses of cars are now going to places their occupants truly want to go, rather than just places they have to go. It’s easy to picture Sufjan as the mad conductor on this one, furiously waving his arms around in 5/4 time and hoping the players can all keep up.

12. Movement VII (Finale): The Emperor of Centrifuge
The twinkling of bells, like stars in the night sky (except probably helicopters since you often can’t see the stars from a big city like New York), offer a false sense of calm before this piece quickly begins to build into one of the busiest and most hectic compositions so far on the entire album. It’s got the same sense of momentum to it that the previous movement did, so I often get the two confused in my mind, which is slightly troublesome since I want the finale to have its own sense of identity. Midway through, there’s a pause and the piece does finally start to congeal into its own sense of a grand finale, which brilliantly reprises musical themes from the earlier movements. It’s over so quick that you might be expecting more, but that’s a minor issue.

13. Postlude: Critical Mass
The “end” credits sequence is comprised of the simple, watery ripple of reflective piano playing, as if to let us catch our breath during the wee hours of the morning when the roads have mostly gone quiet again.

As I alluded to earlier, the CD comes bundled with a DVD, which features the same audio as the CD, accompanied by three adjacent screens of video, all capturing like images of the New York City skyline and traffic on the BQE. It’s an art film, essentially, the three frames changing scenes and speeding up or slowing down to match the mood of the music. Occasionally, the “Hooper Heroes” will come out to act as eye candy. it’s strange, but that’s art for you. Parts of it are amusing. I wouldn’t sit and watch the whole thing for 40 minutes straight (it’s actually 50 minutes long, with the extra footage comprising an annoyingly noisy “hidden track”). But you can have it on in the background while you’re doing other things and maybe something interesting will catch your eye from time to time. Watching the DVD was helpful to confirm that the images I got in my mind’s eye during each piece were more or less the images that Sufjan was trying to convey.

Prelude on the Esplanade $0
Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes $.50
Movement I: In the Countenance of Kings $1.50
Movement II: Sleeping Invader $1.50
Interlude I: Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation $0
Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise $2
Movement IV: Traffic Shock $2
Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns $1.50
Interlude II: Subi Power Waltz $0
Interlude III: Invisible Accidents $.50
Movement VI: Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges $1
Movement VII (Finale): The Emperor of Centrifuge $1.50
Postlude: Critical Mass $0
DVD $1
TOTAL: $13



Originally published on


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