Sufjan Stevens and Lowell Brams’ ‘Aporia’ Soothes and Stimulates With Evocative Ambient Soundscapes

Sufjan Stevens is always shifting shapes and surprising us with ever-ambitious releases in unexpected genres. For his latest work, he teams up with longtime collaborator and stepfather Lowell Brams, with whom he co-founded Asthmatic Kitty Records back in 1999. More recently, the two released “Music For Insomnia” in 2008, and Stevens paid tribute to his mother by celebrating her relationship with Brams on 2015’s acclaimed “Carrie & Lowell.” The new album, “Aporia,” takes its name from a Greek term for uncertainty regarding where to begin and how to proceed. Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic makes for a timely release, and fifty percent of the proceeds from sales will be donated to food-focused charities No Kid Hungry and Partners in Health. Distilled from hours of jam sessions, the album is a remarkably evocative listen, sure to both soothe and stimulate in these tumultuous times.

“Aporia” was originally slotted for release this Friday, but dropped early along with a statement on Steven’s website that read, “We had originally scheduled to release Sufjan and Lowell’s collaborative new-age record this Friday, March 27, but since things are uncertain for record stores right now, we’ve decided to release ‘Aporia’ today. The word ‘aporia’ is Greek in origin, literally meaning ‘without passage’ or ‘at a loss.’ This is a good description of how many of us feel right now. We harbor no delusions of grandeur — this record is hardly the most important thing in your world right now — but we also believe that music is sacred and has the ability to bring beauty, wisdom, truth, and light to our lives in difficult times. We hope this music can bring you meaning, hope and encouragement today.”

The album opens with “Ousia,” named after an ancient Greek term for “essence” or “substance,” and there could hardly be a more suitable title for an ambient piece. From the onset, you are immersed in fading, nebulous, intersecting planes of sound. Sprawling washes swell into flickers of white noise, along with expansive tones that evoke the horizon. The sound is at once earthy and alien. In the last third, a beat picks up, and the ambience is anchored in the machinery of a video game conduit. One track in, you can have a reasonable idea what you’re in for, as the rest of the album essentially expands on themes already heard. 

The sweeping pads continue on “What It Takes,” along with rickety percussion that recalls Thom Yorke’s instrumentals of recent years. It develops rhythmically, with flangers and busy hi-hats entering the mix, followed by choirs, at which point things have become rather humorously “new age.” On “Disinheritance,” a shorter piece, elusive tones are burnt and blended into an amorphous, iridescent soundscape that segues naturally into “Agathon,” whereupon percussive bursts of static enter, followed eventually by synth strings and resounding, thudding drums, along with tinny mechanical percussion. It might be the silliest moment yet, and it seems like Stevens and Brams are having plenty of fun. By the end, it gets ornate with flashy, ambitious, fluttering melodies. As on any ambient recording, echoes of Brian Eno are ubiquitous, but in this particular instance, the music nods to Eno’s pre-ambient days.  

“Determined Outcome” presents an unsettling sound collage, full of tension. This type of music can mess with one’s emotion like few other forms can. The sound is at once alienating and welcoming, harsh and soothing. Moreover, it’s fancifully panned, so that listening at different areas in a room will amount to different experiences. “Misology” brings back the choirs, in a muffled haze, along with what sounds like a distorted guitar for the first time, although a few levels removed, as if fed back into itself many times over. “Afterworld Alliance” is a designedly awkward exercise, with a beat that goads you forward as the cloudy atmosphere insists on remaining stagnant. A distorted blurb, spurs on a wild, if brief, exhilarating, industrial groove. 

The album is not without its odd moments, and “Palinodes” seems designed solely to make one wonder, “What on Earth is this awful sound?” At any rate, you have to credit Stevens for never ceasing to surprise and confound. “Backhanded Cloud” is an immaculate short work of shifting sonic tectonics. “Glorious You” gives a sense of stretching elastic tones that never burst, but come infinitely close. Stevens and Brams nod to Raymond Scott, electronic music pioneer whose work was made famous when Carl Stalling adapted it to Looney Tunes cartoons, in “For Raymond Scott.” The short, playful track is some mind-bending stuff, clearing the clutter, and allowing you to follow the notes as they mutate in pitch and timbre, in an act of sepia retro futurism.

“Matronymic” sounds like a tangled mess of wires, with sitar-like drones alongside building, buzzing feedback, scraping noise, and apparitional bells. “The Red Desert” invites you to stretch out prostrate, limbs blending into the distances in radiant waves. As with many tracks on this album, the ambiance and general sluggish quality of the music allow the more propulsive and sharply-defined elements to make more of an impact. When a plodding bassline and delayed, gurgling synth bleeps sketch out an oblique melody, it’s a eureka moment. “Conciliation” captures what indeed seem like an attempt at conciliation, with the perennial, soothing washes of sound spanning over, as if in an attempt to muffle discordant, squirmish rumblings underneath. “Ataraxia” is the aural equivalent of freeze-frame photography with sequential images shown simultaneously — darting figures that blur and bleed into one another in a hypnotic off-kilter dance. “The Unlimited” might just outdo “Ousia” in regard to appropriate titling for new age fare. The track certainly does sound far-reaching, with feedback, ominous low tones, and a sputtering, skeletal rhythm that builds gradually, giving shape and form ever so slightly, until the piece assumes something almost like a conventional song.

Stevens and Brams evoke Trent Reznor, from “The Fragile” onwards, on “The Runaround.” One of the more bold, up-front recordings, it follows a heavy, minimal, industrial beat, with slurring, metallic snares, and sounds that evoke swarms of alien insects. Completely unexpectedly, vocals enter the mix briefly, albeit cloaked in plenty of distortion, as if to convey a floating, peripheral idea. “Climb That Mountain” presents a now-familiar combination of barebones, clangy percussion, and atmospherics, more understated this time. A pristine keyboard melody hovers above, and the conglomerate sound builds into a lofty mess of choirs, making for another vaguely comical new age moment. “Captain Praxis,” a definite outlier, switches things up for a moment, at just the right time, lest you find yourself lost in the drawn-out haze. The danciest track by far, it’s a delightfully retro, geek chic romp. 

After this opportune diversion, “Eudaimonia” eases back into the usual proceedings. Another viscerally unsettling piece, it makes a compelling case for effective art being able to provoke some reaction in the viewer, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Again, it achieves its potency from the tension between the mobile and the stationary, the progressive and the inert. Stevens and Brams revel in some goofy sound design, and when all the flurry finally condenses into a single, elegant tone, you find yourself overcome by a certain sense of calm. This spellbinding experience gives way to the final number, “The Lydian Ring,” in which brittle tones tease a tune, and a film of haze builds over. Melodic lines emanate over one another, one by one, intersecting and blurring like chimes and vapor trails, fading elegantly out, in an expressive, yet modest ending.

When Brian Eno invented ambient music in 1978 with “Ambient 1: Music for Airports,” he sought to create soundscapes more suitable for otherworldly, vaguely ominous environments. At this peculiar moment in time, with jobs and services indefinitely suspended, society reduced to virtual interactions and risky small gatherings, “Aporia” arrives like something of a saving grace. Whether you’re sprawled out on the floor in desperation, searching for sounds in which to escape, or reveling in your newfound freetime by taking up increasingly bizarre and esoteric hobbies, the new album from Stevens and Brams will surely add some color and spirit to these most interesting times, and guide you toward many a profound reflection. 

Aporia” is available March 24 on Apple Music.