Saturday, May 22, 2021

Sufjan Stevens explores the hardship of grief on his new album Convocations

Large-scale, high-concept projects are nothing new for American Singer-Songwriter, Sufjan Stevens. Known for his ability to tell captivating and emotional stories on a variety of topics, whether it’s the mindset of a serial killer, the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or conflict of faith. Stevens’ newest album consists of an intensely personal 49-track instrumental exploration of grief. 

The loss of his father two days after the release of his 2020 album The Ascension was Stevens main inspiration when creating his latest album. Speaking with, Stevens discussed his decision for the direction of the album and the obvious challenges the previous year presented saying how he felt so overwhelmed, to the point “I had almost been rendered speechless, in a way”

Through Convocations, Stevens covers the 5 stages of grief through a different lens, exploring the light and dark of pain and loss. While the traditional stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; these are reworked to become 'Meditation', 'Lamentation', 'Revelation', 'Celebration', and 'Incantation'


Religion and a conflict of faith are present themes throughout the entirety of Sufjan Stevens discography, as 'Meditations' proves. Opening with choral vocals and ambient bright strings that resemble sunlight through a church window, there follows a claustrophobic weight of emotion that grows throughout as this volume attempts to find peace through the dark. The third volume, 'Revelations' is also steeped in religious imagery, from its title to the rich choral vocals and familiar sound of an organ. 

However, this is countered by the dark cellos rumbling beneath, joined by erratic synth surges panning from left to right which contribute to the sense of anxiety that grows as the piece becomes increasingly unsure of its destination. While there are moments of hope through the quintessential phrases of faith, the fear of the sinister is omnipresent.


Despite occasionally losing track of motifs through the middle of this volume, sporadic swells and surges of synth strings and harsh mechanical samples allow this volume to fully embrace its title.


Any hope of comfort from 'Celebration', the fourth volume of the album, is quickly thrown aside as the album enters its most claustrophobic and isolated moments thus far. The themes from the previous volume are amplified by the fight between the light, religious notes of swirling strings, and the dissonant, sharp synths layered over harsh winds and rain. In the opening tracks, you meander through the landscape laid out over the previous three volumes, while an uneasiness sits on the periphery of the mix with the mixture of sharp cuts, flashes of heavily distorted electric guitar, and TV static buzz. 


Much like grief itself, there is no cathartic ending to Convocations. The fifth and final volume, Incantation, shows an acceptance that to move past grief, you can never move past it, with an ethereal ambiance humming through with sombre pianos and horns, thin whistles pierce and juxtapose. While there are no answers for grief, the options are thoroughly explored throughout the album, resulting in contentment with imbalance. Stevens' poignant dive into the collective pain felt during the stages of grief, remains an incredibly individual experience throughout the beautifully haunting chaos created.


 Dan Hayes


Image: Convocations Album Artwork

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article, sets the tone of the music really well and explores it deeply.


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