Ever since he enchanted audiences with his sentimental indie-folk tribute to the Prairie State, Illinois, American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has wowed fans with his ability to reinvent his sound. Releasing not one, but two Christmas compilation albums, experimental electronic albums and his infamously tender contributions to the “Call Me by Your Name” soundtrack, Stevens has truly done it all. Unfortunately, his newest ambient composition, Convocations, released May 6, does not live up to par.
The album was released in five parts: Meditations on April 8, Lamentations on April 15, Revelations on April 22, Celebrations on April 29, and Incantations on May 6. Including all five parts, Convocations sits at a whopping two hours and 30 minutes in length — longer than the average feature film. If you’re looking for entertainment, though, the feature film may be the way to go. Chock-full of what can best be described as jarring and erratic whale sounds, this record will leave listeners feeling disoriented and bored.
Stevens’ record label, Asthmatic Kitty, stated that the segments of Convocations were intended to represent different stages of grief, mourning and isolation. Without a Google search, it’s unlikely that the average listener would be able to decipher this message. As the composition’s desperate and unfinished melodies blend together, the segments are rather indistinguishable from one another and hardly resemble distinct emotions.
The first segment, ‘Meditations,’ hits its peak early on. The peaceful tranquility of ‘Meditation II’ produces a false sense of hope that the album might diversify, but with each subsequent song sounding more grating and monotonous than the last, it becomes clear that the record isn’t heading in any particular direction.
Musically, ‘Lamentations’ is interchangeable from the previous segment— it’s tedious, tuneless and overly dissonant. Simply put, it’s trying too hard. On the bright side, its Biblical title may be comforting for longtime Stevens fans who admire his devout Christianity — we can always count on Sufjan to stay holy, even in this album’s stark departure from his traditional style.
Another bright side: ‘Revelation V’ is one of the more polished songs on Convocations— its steady buildup and climax provide a refreshing sense of clarity in an otherwise chaotic hodgepodge of electronic cadences. As the song ends, synth-filled tracks immediately transition into one another, leaving no grace period for reflecting on the song you just heard. The closing track, ‘Incantation IX,’ is particularly unsettling — an insecure burst of haphazard beeping makes for an awkward end to an awkward two hours and 30 minutes (excluding the extremely occasional banger, of course.)
As far as ambient music goes, the genre generally serves two purposes: relaxation, à la Brian Eno’s alluring ‘An Ending (Ascent),’ and excitement, e.g. Aphex Twin’s bustling song ‘Fingerbib.’ Convocations accomplishes neither. It’s too ominous to soothe anyone to sleep and lacks the rhythm necessary to supplement dancing. With each song containing one too many abrupt crashes of menacing noise, it’s hard to envision a circumstance where listeners can actually enjoy this album. This is not to say that disharmony is inherently unenjoyable — when done tastefully, there is much beauty to be found in dissonance. However, the sheer volume of dissonance on Convocations renders it meaningless. As new waves of distorted synth pile on top of one another, listeners have nothing to fall back on — no room to breathe. The result is an undeveloped cacophony of sound with no clear beginning, middle, or end.
For an artist with nearly two decades of recording experience under his belt, this record feels amateur — like an edgy 15-year-old messing around on GarageBand. Its rhyming titles border on tacky and its musical quality simply disappoints. It hurts to say, but this album feels like an artist’s desperate attempt to stay quirky and interesting before slipping into irrelevancy. If you choose to listen to Convocations for the full two hours and 30 minutes, you’ll be wishing you could see without your eyes and hear without your ears.