To many people, Sufjan Stevens is an untouchable god of music. It’s not hard to see why. Over the past two decades, the indie-folk artist has released some of the most compelling, ambitious and well-composed music of his era. After a period of relative silence, Stevens returned with his 2020 album, The Ascension, which was once again met with high praise from just about everyone with headphones and a keyboard. This year, he returns with an ambitious, unorthodox release in the form of Convocations. This record collects five short ambient albums: Meditations, Lamentations, Revelations, Celebrations and Incantations into a single gargantuan project. It’s certainly bold, as people have doubtlessly come to expect of Sufjan, but does it work?
Of course, deciding whether or not Convocations works is no simple task. The album boasts a runtime in excess of your typical Marvel film and comes with far fewer explosions and witty one-liners to keep you engaged. But even still, there is beauty and intrigue to be found within the boundaries of this record. People just have to approach it the right way.
It’s best to see this album not as a single structure but rather as a superstructure of five distinct parts. Each part connects and improves its partners, but they all function individually. Take, for instance, the opening disc, Meditations, is fittingly, well… meditative. Washed out choruses of human voices take center stage on “Meditation II,” adding a natural element to the record. This element is reinterpreted in tracks like “Mediation IV” and “Meditation VIII” using a synth, which adds a distinctly engaging quality to the music.
Lamentations is expectedly somber. In particular, “Lamentations II” is among the sadder tracks of the project. Revelations exchanges the predictable joyousness that one might associate with the phrase for a more mystical interpretation. It is easily the most ambitious section of the project and the closest it comes to perfection. “Revelation II” blends the terror of a revealed dream with the feelings of enlightenment that John must have felt while writing the eponymous book of the Bible. “Revelation VII” is the closest listeners get to joyousness, its bright synths and cool supporting structures paving the way to enlightenment.
Celebrations is also remarkable, much like Revelations before it. “Celebration V” incorporates a wide range of sounds that perfectly balance the desire for ambiance with the desire for variety. And “Celebration VIII” follows suit in a slightly more reserved fashion. Finally, Incantations breaks down the door to the strangeness that Stevens so often incorporates into his work. Among the oddest of these tracks is “Incantation III,” which uses a combination of synths and distorted voices to create a perplexing sonic journey.
When taken as a whole, the project is both gorgeous and dull in nearly equal measure. Ambient projects naturally suffer from a perceived banality, often unfairly, but Convocations just doesn’t quite earn its gargantuan runtime. However, if you have a lot of work to get done, you could certainly find a worse focus album than this strange, somewhat overlong experiment from a master of the craft.