Sisyphus is rapper Serengeti, songwriter and heartbreak specialist Sufjan Stevens, and producer Son Lux. For three weeks, the three of them hunkered in a studio crafting Sisyphus, their first proper LP. This self-titled debut does not drop until the 18th of this month, but the group has, as is the custom in these times, let out a trickle of preview tracks to whet our consumer appetites. British newspaper The Guardian is also hosting a full stream of the album here, and I have had listened to it a number of times, meaning I now have a good grasp of both “Alcohol” itself and the context in which it appears. I’ll keep my thoughts brief and on-task, but I want to use this opportunity to point out what numerous observers and Sufjan himself has noticed: Sufjan Stevens is going through an identity crisis.
While critics probably oversold the differences between Stevens’ 2011 LP Age of Adz and his previous work–especially Enjoy Your Rabbit–this does not minimize the huge deviations in tone and sounds between the “folk trilogy” stretching from 2003’s Michigan through 2004’s Seven Swans to 2005’s Illinois (both of the state albums have much longer and nigh-unprintable official titles) and his musical output since 2007. Starting with his indie-classical ode to the infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he has transplanted his Philip Glass-inspired minimalism and orchestral grandeur from analog folk to hip hop. The language is the same; the accent is almost unrecognizable. Stevens’ three folk albums balanced grandiose ornamentation with at times unbearable intimacy. Always a sensualist, both lyrically and musically, Stevens’ preferred tactic is to use sentiment and cutting irony as clashing extremes. This can be seen even on his most religious and sincere record, Seven Swans.
“In the Devil’s Territory” begins with a long buildup, not too dissimilar to “Alcohol” except using banjos instead of drum machine beats. Its lyrics, which portray the narrator eagerly anticipating the apocalyptic war between Satan and God. Most of the time its immaculate surface, fussy and bouncy, stays intact. However, at two points in the song, Sufjan’s irony bares its teeth. Eerie whistles erupt out of nowhere, letting us in on–well, it’s not exactly a joke, but nonetheless it constitutes a break in the texture of the song, forcing us to accept both intense reverence and playful irreverence in the same moment. Since The BQE, which is a stately ode to a highway more notorious than beloved, the irreverence and sensualism have become more pronounced, especially because of his transfer from American folk idioms to hip hop ones. Age of Adz, though it is the critical break in his body of work, is an anomaly compared to his work since that record because of its confessional character. S/S/S, now Sisyphus, makes music that is just as synthetic as Adz but replaces the often overt
Hip hop takes numerous forms, but the ultra-hip, detached form that Stevens has been making with Serengeti has allowed the former’s irreverent and downright ironic tendencies to sharpen. Meanwhile, the rustic orchestral accompaniments from the folk trilogy have moved in from the nostalgic suburbs to the inner city, from the Midwest to Brooklyn.
“Alcohol” has a title that makes it sound like a parody of a hip hop track. Almost like calling a song “New Car” or “Sex,” and I’m genuinely surprised that the latter isn’t a song title on this album. While it’s a broad song title, though, its first two minutes are dense and wordy. Listening to it, one never gets the sense that it’s party music or anything close to it. The beat rarely changes at all, repeating and repeating and repeating until it nestles into your brain much better than any of the lyrics. Though Sisyphus adds a piano riff and submerges the insistent beat under more pleasing synth textures, it makes the song sound more desperate, not less. Stevens’ voice hardly comes through in the tumult, which hardly fits the boozy depression of alcohol. Overall, “Alcohol” is addled, packing in too much for its own good and valuation pure sensation over definite meaning.
Of course, the kicker is that Stevens has been doing that kind of music for a long time now, and one wonders listeners are growing more accepting of this manic sensory overload or, as the cliché goes, familiarity is breeding contempt. For me, the song succeeds, but, as with the video, doesn’t seem to be concerned with anything in particular, hopping from one triviality to the next while the actual point flashes by in an instant.