Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sufjan Stevens - Enjoy Your Rabbit

Sufjan Stevens
Enjoy Your Rabbit

Released 2001 on Asthmatic Kitty
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 15/03/2007ce

1. Year of the Asthmatic Cat (0:24)
2. Year of the Monkey (4:20)
3. Year of the Rat (8:22)
4. Year of the Ox (4:01)
5. Year of the Boar (3:55)
6. Year of the Tiger (4:24)
7. Year of the Snake (6:47)
8. Year of the Sheep (3:34)
9. Year of the Rooster (6:24)
10. Year of the Dragon (9:26)
11. Enjoy Your Rabbit (4:47)
12. Year of the Dog (4:52)
13. Year of the Horse (13:18)
14. Year of Our Lord (4:20)

My first exposure to the music of Sufjan Stevens was with the album Seven Swans; a sparse and mostly acoustic affair on which Stevens sang of deeply religious themes devoid of all traces of irony and wit. I suppose, looking back on the experience, it was a nice enough record in its own right, but hardly the kind of thing that would suggest "the greatest songwriter of his generation"... or whatever it is that the Pitchfork Review are proclaiming him this week. Anyway, I put him to the back of my mind for a bit - while the rest of the world were busy citing Michigan and Illinois as two of the most astounding musical works of the twenty-first century - and dutifully returned to my battered old copies of Trans Europe Express, Rock Bottom and In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.

A few months later however - and completely by chance - I was browsing a reputable high-street record shop just off Tottenham Court Road in the hope of finding something new and interesting to listen to on the train home, as I made my way back from a giddy weekend with my (now, sadly ex) girlfriend. Here, whilst browsing through the many racks of CD's in the oh-so trendy "alternative" section, I came across a beautifully designed little album that was adorned with pretty colours and delicate Chinese lettering. At first I thought it was some kind of obscure import; the sort of undiscovered Jap-rock curio by the kind of band that I would normally be keen to seek out on places like Myspace, or on various other scenester-related message boards. As with cinema, it's often the case that the most interesting work is coming from the East as opposed to the West; so, with my interest peaked, I grabbed a copy and made my way to the counter. Once there, I stood, waiting my turn like a good little consumer; happily thumbing my way around the album art until I finally checked the small print. Yes, this was an album by Sufjan Stevens. Well, by this point the grotty wee cashier with the dreadlocks and flesh holes was beckoning me towards him with a pale and pallid hand, and in the words of Van Morrison, it was too late to stop now... the transaction was complete.

I must admit, popping the CD into my personal stereo amidst the hustle and bustle of Euston Station, I was really expecting a bit of delicate finger picking and a hint of piano to introduce the first song, which I half imagined (from reading the track listing) to be an adorably fey little ditty about an asthmatic cat. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I was greeted with the sound of an elongated, 24 second drone (which sounds like it may have started life as a proper keyboard note before being pitch shifted to oblivion and played at half-speed until the whole thing shattered like a taut elastic band), which is eventually interrupted by a Chinese vocal sample and the introduction to the first song proper. I thought this introduction might just be an odd bit of filler; something to pad out the album and introduce the concept as a whole, but clearly, I was wrong. You see, Enjoy Your Rabbit is an electronic album; completely at odds with Stevens' more acclaimed work as a pensive singer songwriter (and is all the better for it, if you ask me).

Anyway, to get back to the story at hand, there I was, a few minutes later, sitting on a marginally crowded Virgin commuter train, trying to drown out the sound of chattering laptop keys, the opening of crisp packets, the ruffling of newsprint and the infectious whining of snot-nosed little brats with this bizarre and alien-like music blazing in my ears (and all the while watching the greying towers of the city turn into a blur of dull green fields, broken fences and wandering canals, all obscured by the curved and muddied hue of the train's partially tinted window). It all made for a memorable experience, with each song blossoming seamlessly from one track to the next, making this album a work as complete in its sound as the more iconic concept albums that Stevens' has since become better known for. Still; could this really be the work of the same guy who had previously moaned so mournfully about banalities like trees clapping their hands or dresses looking nice? I had to ask myself this question repeatedly as the stuttering beats merged seamlessly with keyboards, synthesisers and lengthy passages of angular guitar distortion; with all sounds pointing towards heaven in a way that the earnest lyrical subject matter and stripped down folk-approach of the aforementioned Seven Swans could only posture towards (as the drones melted mellow into the notes and the melodies formed atop melodies; all glowing like glacial mountain peaks lined with pillowy pink snow and reflected off a glorious golden lake).

Yes, the well worn reviewer clichés are all there; with hints of Brian Eno, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and more obviously, the bands on the Warp label all infusing the sound of this particular LP. I'd also cite the influence of Radiohead, whose year zero album Kid A had been released the year before this particular record and shares the similar aesthetic of an indie act dabbling in a genre that many felt they had no business tampering with. However, whereas Radiohead offered a nod to the music of Aphex Twin and Autechre while still retaining their own unique approach to song writing and structure, Stevens' does away with traditional song writing completely. As a result, some listeners will no doubt see the album as nothing more than shallow would-be genre-hoping from a self-indulgent poseur (just check the Amazon.com reviews for confirmation of this theory), however, I would have to disagree. This album is easily as good as anything released by the more legitimate electronic artists, with the record overcoming it's obvious influences to offer up a number of compositions that are just as compelling, exciting and unique as the work of the ambient/electro artists aforementioned, if not surpassing them entirely in terms of overall quality.

The electronic arrangements here are genuinely impressive; it's not as if Stevens has just thrown together a few keyboard compositions, a bit of guitar distortion and some treated samples. This sounds as legitimate as you could possibly get; with the synthesisers adding cooling textures atop a grinding analogue bass; all backed by electronic drum patterns, crunching guitar samples and swathes of choral backing arrangements. Another plus point is the fact that it never becomes a tedious mess; with Stevens always maintaining a sense of melody or the odd interesting loop. Sometimes, the song will introduce a few notes, create a motif, repeat the motif a few times before gradually transforming into something else entirely. As I said before, there are melodies on top of melodies, counter melodies snaking their way around the original melodies, and all grinding away atop a backing track of ambient, Eno-esque soundscapes. Stevens produces the whole thing himself and you have to wonder why he would abandon this genuinely interesting sound in favour of the dull narrative pop of the albums that would follow.

Unlike the over-reaching portentousness of Michigan and Illinois, albums on which the songs simply cannot function without the idea that unites them, the concept here seems almost entirely ornamental; a vague idea for Stevens to pin his musical theories to. However, given the fact that the album is essentially an instrumental work, the notion of writing songs based around the animals of the Chinese Zodiac stems no further than the song titles and the occasional audio sample. Still, it's a nice idea to have, and lends the opportunity for the musician to pander to the aforementioned notions of Oriental pop; with the music on this album no doubt making the perfect soundtrack to a live-action version of the iconic anime film Akira, or perhaps even an alternative soundtrack to Wong Kar-Wai's misunderstood masterpiece, 2046.

It's cinematic music then; something to listen to late at night, preferably in the warm glow of lava lamp or some fairy-lights; as your illegal substance of choice turns your brain into a candy coloured wonderland. All thoughts drifting by on an ocean of sleep as you slooshy these lovely sounds that segue seamlessly into one another; with one song becoming another, song, and so on and so on, until dawn becomes dusk (and then back again). It's beautiful music... some of it suggesting the neon-lit, technodelic, consumerist paradise of a Hong Kong that exists in tandem with Ridley Scott's retrogressive future world creation of Blade Runner, or the point in which the twenty-first century becomes legitimate science fiction. It suggests a world where little people bustle from metallic, phallic commuter trains and out, onto centuries old side roads that are dwarfed by monolithic towers of glass; all shimmering in a vibrant blaze as rain falls down onto plastic, transparent umbrellas, held, teasingly, by girls in traditional school uniform. It's blissed out and loved up (yada, yada, yada), but also littered with moments of lonesome melancholy and intense paranoia. A unique work, in other words.

Enjoy Your Rabbit is really the kind of album that I would have never expected from Sufjan Stevens; bold, exciting, imaginative, evocative and entirely confrontational in the nicest possible way. With albums like this, I always like to think that there's an element of gleeful subversion going on; with the artist creating a piece of work that is wilfully different than anything they've produced before, so that it becomes an almost "fuck you" type statement to the critics, and indeed, the fans, who won't accept that an artist needs to create work that is different, challenging and forward thinking. I touched upon this with my earlier review of Graham Coxon's 2000 album, The Golden D, which is self-consciously as far removed from anything else he'd ever recorded at that particular point (though really, you could probably take the whole idea back to the release of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, if not even further than that).

However, that said, the fact that this was only Stevens' second album cancels out this theory, with his third album Michigan being the one that finally announced him to the mainstream public. Still, the fact remains, this album is light years ahead of the dull narrative compositions of Michigan and Illinois; albums that might seem quirky and idiosyncratic now, but in ten years time will probably seal Stevens' reputation as a one joke gimmick (really, is the whole idea of recording fifty albums, each dealing with a particular U.S. state any less laughable or pretentious than Tales of the Topographic Oceans? I mean, what's his next concept for an album, the phone book?). You can see this kind of mentality of novelty-laced, attention-grabbing song cycles in his Christmas album, and with certain aspects of the overall concept here. Thankfully though, the music here exists outside the concept. As I said earlier, the themes behind the record are largely ornamental; what really impresses is the music, with Enjoy Your Rabbit really standing as not only a remarkable electronic album, but a remarkable album in general.

Yes, you could argue that it's a tad too long, but you could say the same thing about Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1. The fact remains that this is great music; a collection of interesting compositions that sound just as great when sound-tracking a lengthy train journey as they do when acting as background fodder for late night listening sessions (sitting up till the early hours of the morning chatting shit with good friends, as the epic Year of the Dragon plays on a loop in the background). This album has really become something of a firm favourite for me; one that surprises and amazes with every subsequent listen. A quietly captivating work that was probably lost in translation.

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