Never one to shy away from an intimidating track-length, Sufjan Stevens has decided to apply that focus to an entire album. Convocations (★★★★☆) is his second album of pure electronica in as many years, following last year’s Aporia. There are plenty of superficial similarities between the two albums, but where the last album had a meandering, improvisational feel to it, Convocations is a recording with far more structure and purpose. Created to pay homage to his late birth father, whose death came two days after the release of The Ascension late last year, it is inspired by grief and the deep, sometimes painfully conflicting impulses to both mourn a loved one’s death and celebrate the life they lived.
The album’s daunting five volumes of 49 tracks, clocking in at two and a half hours, are meant to take us through the journey of mourning, recalling the five stages of grief, although they do not map perfectly onto the traditional five. In fact, Stevens seems to have actively titled them in opposition to those five. Rather than denial, we get Meditations, a cerebral series of tracks that evoke a sense of sitting with and processing loss, rather than sidestepping it.
Lamentations might be more straightforwardly linked to the stage of anger, but it starts out sounding more soft and ethereal than you might expect. Even when the glitchy darkness begins to set in around “Lamentation IV,” the entire volume retains a dreamy, trippy quality that it shares with the track of the same name on The Ascension. Invoking the word “lamentation” might conjure intense, dramatic grief, but ever-astute when it comes to biblical referents, Stevens instead channels a sense of despair and hollowness with cold precision.
Much of the album is a mellow, ambient soundscape, but while that mellowness might allow it to fade into the background after a while, its energy noticeably shifts midway through and demands attention. The drama picks up towards the end of the third volume, Revelations, Stevens’ answer to the third stage, bargaining. “Revelation IX” begins with a tense flurry of bells, ringing atonally over a frantic beat that eventually fizzles out into static and synths, before giving way to “Revelations X,” an intense ambient track that puts a triumphant end to that volume. Stevens then answers depression with Celebrations, although the ominous organs and wave-like hissing of “Celebrations IV” are introduced, we are forced to wonder exactly what is being celebrated.
The final triumphant volume, Incantations, incorporates magisterial choral and organ-like synths, putting a neat cap on the project by hearkening to a more historic, or if you like, characteristically biblical form of mourning when grief was to be seen and shared rather than kept behind closed doors. Stevens puts a final touch on the project by closing out the volume after just nine tracks, nodding to the open-endedness of the grieving process. The intricacy of the production is impressive enough on this scale, but the sensitivity and deliberateness with which he conjures moods would make any of the five volumes a standout ambient work on their own. Together, though, they are a powerful musical meditation on grief as much as they are a moving personal elegy.
Convocations is available for purchase and streaming on popular music services. A 5-LP vinyl boxset will be released on August 20 and is available for pre-order. Visit https://sufjanstevens.ffm.to/convocations.
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