Album reviews: Sufjan Stevens, ‘Aporia’, Waxahatchee, ‘Saint Cloud’ and Basia Bulat, ‘Are You in Love?’

Elisa Bray, Alexandra Pollard
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Sufjan StevensAporia

★★★☆☆

Since his 2005 breakthrough with the chamber-pop album Illinois, Sufjan Stevens has continued his sonic adventuring with complex electronica, a hip-hop side project, a solar system-inspired collaboration, acoustic folk and a ballet score for piano last year.

This latest release comprises – according to the New York-based Stevens himself – the “magical moments” from 10 years of jam sessions with his stepfather, the Asthmatic Kitty record label founder Lowell Brams. They may have emerged from jamming, but these 21 instrumental tracks, from 30-second fragments to three-and-a-half-minute pieces, are tightly crafted compositions.

The Greek word aporia means “without passage” or “at a loss”. These ambient tracks in the style of new-age composers don’t exactly help you to find the way, but they do create a certain headspace. Elaborate synth soundscapes take the listener on a meditative sci-fi journey through gentle dreaminess on the minimal “Disinheritance” and “Determined Outcome”, to ominousness on “Misology” and “Backhanded Cloud”, where dissonant choral vocals and glissando strings create unsettling tension. But the sense of foreboding never lasts long. There’s a sense of hope-inspiring purpose elsewhere, especially when the Boards of Canada-like drifting opening of “Agathon” makes way for a driving rhythm, hook and ripples of galactic electric-guitar noodling. The strings-laden “Glorious You” is a tender moment that signposts at the emotion that’s lacking here.

As a soundtrack album to meditate to, Aporia is pleasant, but there’s no denying that the absence of Stevens’s typically ornate songcraft is keenly felt. EB

WaxahatcheeSaint Cloud

★★★★★

There’s always something tempering the beauty of Waxahatchee’s music. I mean that as a compliment: on the American singer-songwriter’s fifth album, Saint Cloud, luscious melodies are undercut by a lingering unease, sentimentality by steeliness.

The glorious “Fire”, which starts with plaintive keyboard strains, might have been described as “lovely” were it sung down an octave. As it is, with Waxahatchee (real name Katie Crutchfield) stretching to the upper limits of her range, her voice sounds like a match being struck. Her lolloping delivery on “Lilacs” – “and the lilacs drank the water/ and the lilacs die/ and the lilacs drank the water/ marking the slow, slow, slow passing of time” – is Bob Dylan by way of Lucinda Williams.

Waxahatchee in artwork for her new album, ‘Saint Cloud’

Since her lo-fi debut, 2012’s American Weekend, Crutchfield has evolved towards indie-rock – but this is the most country she has ever sounded. The most lavish, too, despite the album having been stripped back to only its most necessary parts.

Written just after Crutchfield decided to get sober, Saint Cloud offers up a sort of gradual unmasking. “You don’t worship me, you strip the illusion,” she sings on “Hell”. “Can’t Do Much”, which she wanted to be “an extremely unsentimental love song”, is funny, frank and poetic: “We will coalesce our heaven and hell, my eyes roll around like dice on the felt.” Later, she drops the poetry. “I want you, all the time.”

On “The Eye”, which sounds like the sun rising, Crutchfield professes, “I have a gift, I’ve been told, for seeing what’s there.” For singing about it, too. AP

Basia BulatAre You in Love?

★★★★☆

A key figure on the Canadian music scene, Basia Bulat arrived in 2007 with Oh, My Darling, a debut album of emotive, autoharp-drenched indie-folk. Such is her gorgeously rich voice, and her talent for crafting melodic arcs, that she has long been in demand for collaborations with everyone from Sufjan Stevens to Arcade Fire and the late Leonard Cohen.

For the Montreal-based artist’s last album, 2016’s Good Advice – her UK breakthrough – she emerged reinvigorated, in a gold-sequinned cape with a sparkling poppier sound to match, in part thanks to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on production. This fifth album is another gem. With James involved once again, Are You in Love? continues to shift away from her folky beginnings while channelling her soulfulness more deeply.

Since her last release, Bulat lost her father and married the multi-instrumentalist Andrew Woods, so she made a pilgrimage to Joshua Tree to help her write an album exploring love and compassion. The result captures the Mojave desert’s expansiveness and raw exposure with its sense of contemplation among the strong melodic hooks.

Like many of the meticulously composed songs here, the pensive “Electric Roses” shimmers with sweeping strings, finger-picked guitar and the warm yearning of her vibrato. Bulat cited Minnie Ripperton, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton as inspirations for this album, and she recalls the former on her bold opening title track, showing off her impressive range.

“Love is at the End of the World” is a resplendent finale, building towards its psychedelic conclusion. Yet, even the upbeat break-up song, “Your Girl”, allows melancholy to seep into its faster tempo, jaunty piano and energetic synths, as Bulat dances away the pain. Are You in Love? is a magical marriage of joyful pop with heart and depth. EB

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