With Sufjan Laying (Ahem, Lying) Low, Son Lux And Mutual Benefit Conjure His Spirit
Son Lux’s Lanterns begins with a flurry of orchestral trills and an impossibly precious celestial chorale, all of which gives way to a doe-eyed tenor trembling over sparse, moody tones. It would sound otherworldly if it didn’t sound so familiar. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of indie-pop this past decade can easily recognize these sonic signifiers as the earmarks of one Sufjan Stevens, iconoclast orchestral twee folk-rocker-turned-experimental synth-pop provocateur at large. Since breaking through with 2003’s Michigan, Sufjan has been a transformative figure for alternative music, often credited (or blamed) for what Tom dubbed indie-rock’s orchestral softening. At this point, he’s one of the new millennium’s most influential musical forces, and Lux (pictured) is living proof.
From his banjo-toting Christian rock days to the harrowing electronic existential crises of The Age Of Adz, Sufjan’s sound has always been unmistakable. The ingredients aren’t entirely native to Sufjan — Pitchfork’s review of Michigan wisely identified it as the intersection of Jim O’Rourke and Nick Drake, of Philip Glass and Eric’s Trip — but the aesthetic he crafted has been so thoroughly his. Still, as dissected last fall, he hasn’t always put it to use at consistent intervals, and a proper Sufjan Stevens full-length has been lacking since 2010, when he essentially gave us two of them.
No problem! Here comes Sufjan’s s / s / s bandmate with something to scratch that itch, assuming the similarity doesn’t make you bristle. Lanterns is a wonderful record, albeit one that never quite lives up to the promise of lead single “Lost It To Trying,” an immaculate composite of triumphal brass, swirling woodwinds, ghostly caterwauls, a rapturous choir, and a thunderstorm of percussion. On that song and elsewhere, Lux (aka Ryan Lott) carves out his own identity. His music is crisper and harder-hitting than his buddy Suf’s soft-hewn epics, and Lanterns is laced with residual quirk-hop oddity from Son Lux’s days as a producer with Anticon’s brainy bunch (especially the wobbling IDM of “Enough Of Our Machines”). He’s not just aping Sufjan. But the same spirit is there, looming, in the brisk rush of “No Crimes,” the melancholy drift of “Plan The Escape,” the quivering hymn “Lanterns Lit.” It hits the spot.
Son Lux runs in the same circles as Sufjan — they started a band together, after all — but he’s not the only indie-pop auteur flaunting the guy’s influence on a new album this fall. Mutual Benefit, who we highlighted as a Band to Watch this week, is tapping that same vein with astonishing results.
Love’s Crushing Diamond is a monster, if monsters can be meek and brimming with heavenly light. Even more so than Sox Lux’s Lott, Jordan Lee, the talented drifter behind Mutual Benefit, deflects direct Sufjan comparisons. He’s too restless to stay in one place for long, and that includes musically. So “Golden Wake” reflects the widescreen childlike wonder of Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse, and “That Light That’s Blinding” begins with sunrise-streaks-between-the-trees acoustic guitar arpeggios out of Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, and “Strong River” rises from slumber a la Volcano Choir, and “Advanced Falconry” proves all Animal Collectives go to heaven. The whole thing is far looser than the busy symphonics of, say, Illinois. Lee’s his own man, same as Lott. As our own Liz Pelly put it:
Lee’s music is driven by his own heartfelt vision, a balance of folksy old-timey elements one might except from a roving storyteller (plucks of banjos, off-kilter homemade percussion), often layered with the sort of electronic elements one might expect from a contemporary experimental pop artist (droning synths, loops of old keyboards).
Still, there’s that banjo, and those not-that-innocent boy-girl singalongs, and that general sense of precociousness infecting every moment. Well into indie-pop’s Post-Sufjan era, his disciples are easy to pick out, but not so easy to write off. This stuff is too good to be mere replication, but it strikes the same chords, and it’s a fitting substitute for those of us who are fiending for something from Sufjan that isn’t throwaway demos or an overstuffed stocking. For the moment, he seems content to deliver winking lectures to Miley Cyrus regarding the distinction between “laying” and “lying,” though I’m hoping that’s just how he passes the time between clandestine recording sessions. But if he doesn’t happen to be releasing anything any time soon, here’s to guys like Lott and Lee picking up his mantle and serving up a double portion of his spirit.