Sufjan Stevens Writes His Own Holy Books on 'Convocations'
Published May 04, 2021Two days after the release of his last record, The Ascension, Sufjan Stevens' father died. That was the impetus behind the composite monolith Convocations, a five-volume, 49-track, two-and-a-half hour instrumental album. Stevens is no stranger to an instrumental or experimental project, but he's never put out anything this vast. Meant to represent the five stages of grief, label Asthmatic Kitty describes the album as "a reflection on a year of anxiety, uncertainty, isolation, and loss."
That's certainly apt, for all of us. Without a word, the spectre of death and heartache haunts every track. But the project is far from an ambient, meandering funeral dirge. The first volume Meditations, is appropriately, well, meditative. It takes four songs for any significant chord progression to be introduced, the first three largely being claustrophobic, atmospheric strings. Under the lens of all five parts, this makes sense, although it can take a while to get to the interesting bits.
Lamentations, with its droning and buzzing loops, feels like the listener is adrift in a rudderless monotony. This opens up to more pianos and strings and by "Lamentations X," something akin to the aftermath of emotional catharsis. Of course, processing grief isn't really something that happens in recognizable stages, and there's three volumes to go.
The entire album is steeped in religiosity, which is a given considering Stevens' own Christian faith he's previously explored on record. Revelations embodies most the seeking that is inherent to any faith, via its Biblical title and the introduction of synths reminiscent of your archetypal church band, namely bells, organs and chants. It's not quite apocalyptic, instead anxious and striving for meaning.
Throughout all volumes, Stevens gives his quote unquote realistic synths a slightly unreal quality, as if one's world is ever so slightly off-kilter. Celebrations puts this aspect front and centre. The loops are more frequently interrupted by aberrations, particularly in the back half. The anxiety of Revelations does not entirely dissipate by the next volume. The hymns are glitched; there's poison in the prayer.
Final volume Incantations combines elements from each of its predecessors: a dawning realization, a chance at release, lingering unease and the possibility that this could all begin again tomorrow. In the aftermath of any loss, there are more questions than answers, and these five volumes offer more of the former. Your reception towards Convocations will depend on your patience, your tolerance for experimental albums, and whether you're even a fan of Stevens' instrumental work to begin with. If you're not, then Stevens exploring grief via Brian Eno-style minimalism is not going to be what swings the pendulum for you. For Stevens' disciples though, there's enough here to warrant a poring over reminiscent of the same given to holy books. (Asthmatic Kitty)