- 17 May 21
Stevens reflects on personal loss and worldwide trauma in five-disc, ambient epic.
Grief is an invisible whirlpool. It pulls you under but it isn't so much that you drown as that you forget what it was like to ever breathe in the first place.
That effect, numbing, disorienting, exhausting, is powerfully conveyed on Sufjan Stevens' extraordinary new project – a five-disc suite of neo-classical and ambient pieces in which he interrogates his feelings following the death last year of his biological father (Stevens was largely raised by his stepfather, Lowell Brams).
Rasjid Stevens passed away on September 2, 2020. This was two days after the release of Stevens' eight album, The Ascension. The date is also riven into my mind as my own father passed away on September 26. So, as with Stevens, my feelings about The Ascension are bound up in shock and whatever comes after shock, when your nerves are worn down and your synapses have fizzled out.
Given the sprawl of the undertaking, there is obviously a lot going on. And, needless to say, your appreciation of Convocations will depend on the degree to which you are up for a quintuple-helping of Sufjan Stevens channelling his existential despair via the medium of atonal instrumentals. It's my jam – perhaps it is not yours. In which case feel free to knock a few points off our star rating.
Divided into movements, Convocations starts with a segment titled Meditation and then moves to Lamentation, Revelation, Celebration and Incantation, each "representing one of the five stages of grief."
Stevens isn't just processing personal loss. The stillness, the sheer tedious otherness, of the lockdown is, for instance, seemingly acknowledged on the Revelation passages, where synths mourn and weep and sometimes simply shiver and sigh.
These moments are wonderful – but do they bring any comfort? I wonder. You have also to admire the chutzpah of whoever decided to release as a single the track 'Meditations V', a composition which suggests Vangelis's Blade Runner score only with fewer throwaway chuckles.
It's little surprise death has been on the mind of many artists. The obvious example is David Balfe's For Those I Love, in which he shares his feelings – regret, guilt, nostalgia – over the death by suicide of his best friend (the LP, predating the pandemic, has acquired fresh resonances). And there is The Anchoress's The Art Of Losing, a masterpiece about trauma and the need to keep on moving forward.
Convocations is something else entirely. It clocks in at nearly 2.5 hours (around the length of time it takes Jed Mercurio to explain that no, really, The Line Of Duty ending was perfect). And, of course, there are the often challenging genres, with Philip Glass and Steve Reich-style minimalism up against throbbing krautrock and untethered electronica steeped in early Eno.
And yet the message is simple. Life has its seasons – and sooner or later we must all adjust to its rhythms, making peace, as we do, with the inevitable.