Sufjan Stevens, Serengeti & Son Lux (s/s/s) – Beak And Claw
When Sufjan Stevens unleashed the neon-bright, widescreen extravaganza of his ‘The Age of Adz’ live show on UK audiences just under a year ago, mine was one of many voices proclaiming it probably the best gig they’d ever witnessed. To the bewilderment of those who found themselves mind-blown though, there were a number of vociferous dissenters who seemed to be of the opinion that a talent so lyrically, stylistically and musically diverse and inquisitive as Stevens should “stick to banjo music”. Well, they ain’t gonna like this latest collaboration with rapper Serengeti and crooner/producer Son Lux – but that’s their loss.
From the first note of stand-out opener ‘Museum Day’, here is Sufjan’s keening, aching voice, its heartbroken loveliness echoing with cavernous loss over chiming, elegiac piano notes. Autotuned beyond even ‘Adz’ levels, the vocals nevertheless are drenched in poignancy – in fact the more so for the electronic effects. Lyrically, the distraught indignation of a spurned lover seeps into the listener’s ears, while never being explicitly fathomable.
As, with a metallically grating shimmer the dreamlike prelude gives way to nervy, skittering beats, rapper Serengeti takes up the narrative, likewise veiling meaning in snatched snippets of imagery. His is a voice weighted with a rueful nostalgia and wistfulness as he delivers a vivid, but purely impressionistic, reminiscence of – what exactly? Story book snapshots of museum galleries and corridors, tantalising glimpses of “pterodactyl beak and claw” blend with dusty, dope-fuelled hazes of lost euphoria in a kaleidoscopic array of gossamer images that we daren’t pull apart for fear of tearing away the magic.
A lush sweep of strings heralds Son Lux’s honeyed refrain of “We are recolouring” – eventually taken up as an obtuse and simultaneously unifying outro, in counterpoint to the return of the opening melody under a static sea of icreasingly erratic cymbal crashes and pattering drums, until all drops away and we are left only with that bewildering, bewitching line “I am recolouring”.
Where ‘Museum Day’ is all fragility and beauty, ‘Beyond Any Doubt’ is instantly bolder, the swirling synth intro and stridently rippling bass line setting a tone that has a palpable menace. The effect is only reinforced by the thumping groove of the drums as a dark minimalism settles in and, with wry humour, Serengeti launches into lines that juxtapose surrealist escapism – including, oddly, something about viola strings – with the humdrum mundanity of unpaid bills and unrealised dreams. Stevens’ falsetto hook brings a little clarity to proceedings, reflecting that “If I could figure out what it was all about, I’d work it out” – yes, but there’s the great conundrum, and we are left none the wiser.
Stevens’ label mate Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond lends sultry, breathy vocals to ‘If This is Real’, a chorus that is gradually but relentlessly chopped up with squelches, glitches and crackling beats as the chaos builds and everything threatens to collapse into pandemonium. In parallel the rapping, on the face of it a playful epistle to a best man, has by this point escalated to a feverish frenzy, Serengeti punching out the words with vigorous relish.
EP closer ‘Octomum’ interweaves what sounds like the full arsenal of sound effects from Super Mario Kart with a glitzy, glam chant of “I had the night of my life” to create a brash, bouncing backdrop to a funny, fantastical love tale about taking the mother of octuplets to the prom – but forgetting the corsage. Unfathomable – but irrepressible too, and just when things couldn’t get more surreal, the whole thing goes 80s-country-folk, with vocal effects, jaws harp and harmonica all over the place. Somehow it sounds like Rolf Harris getting down with the kids – and I mean that as a good thing.
Across the four songs, s / s / s bewilder and beguile, tease and tantalise, experiment and excite. Like a favourite museum, ‘Beak and Claw’ is perhaps too diverse in genres to truly captivate all of the people for all of the time – most listeners will have a definite favourite song – but it will nevertheless have you exploring all the different wings and galleries for hidden gems you’ve not appreciated before. And not a banjo in sight.
Released March 20 2012 on Anticon
Posted by Terry Murphy
Tags: Beak & Claw, ep, EP Review, s/s/s, Serengeti, Son Lux, Sufjan Stevens, Terry Murphy