s/s/s, as the collaboration between Chicago rapper Serengeti, New York producer Son Lux and serial project starter Sufjan Stevens was originally called, felt uncomfortably close to supergroup parody when they emerged as a trio in 2012. Never mind a gathering of disparate stars in search of new chemistry; apparently the only prerequisite for a team-up these days is an unlikely gathering of names starting with S. In fairness though, despite the ghosts of failed supergroups hanging over the whole endeavour, there’s more common ground between the three main players of Sisyphus, as they now go by, than might be immediately obvious. With Serengeti’s dextrous juggling of styles, Son Lux’s position in the middle ground between glitchy electronica and neoclassical composition, and Stevens’ recent genre-bending streak, they certainly share a healthy disrespect for genre boundaries. And then there was 2012’s Beak & Claw EP; a taster that, while patchy, was creative and novel enough to breed hopes that further honing might bear fruit down the road.
More’s the pity, then, that Sisyphus’s self-titled debut LP arrives so awkward, so tentative, so painfully inert. The album is loosely inspired by the work of installation artist Jim Hodges and was nominally commissioned to accompany Hodges’ exhibition at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, but that purpose hasn’t brought coherence to the album, whose songs shimmy between time-honoured themes of love, sex, addiction and greed in much the same way as any other album might. According to Stevens, the cross-pollination with Hodge’s art was limited to “ his prints nearby and listen closely to its subconscious”, which epitomises the vagueness that dogs this record virtually from beginning to end.
At the core of the issue is the uneasy way the styles of the three S’s interact, or fail to. Like doomed teens at a forgettable school dance, they make physical contact but remain a total mystery to one another. Each of their individual tics gets an admirably egalitarian run-around, but they’re all diminished for having to share their space.
There’s a classic, chirpy Sufjan woodwind flurry on “My Oh My”, and a familiar flight of emotive strings on “Flying Ace”. Plenty to like there for fans of Stevens’ early days, but they appear like lost boats, marooned uncomfortably against Son Lux’s subterranean backing and Serengeti’s staccato rhymes. Son Lux has his fingerprints all over the album’s dense low-end and trilling effects, but the need to create regular patterns for rhyming over renders his efforts boxy and mechanical when compared to the Technicolor fireworks of Lanterns, his solo album of just a few months ago. Serengeti, meanwhile, might be the most tightly handcuffed of the three. Sisyphus is a tragic waste of a vivid storyteller. There are no Kenny Dennis-style characters here, and precious little of ‘Geti’s usual arresting imagery; too often he’s backed into a pedestrian corner, like on “Calm It Down”, in which he reels off life problems (“When you feel / Like throwing / All your books in the air”) before listlessly referring the audience to the advice of the song’s title. No matter how hard our heroes try to help each other out, the music’s paralysed between them.
There are glimmers of potential, like Serengeti’s smooth verses on “Lion’s Share”, which hinges around the only beat loose enough to take advantage of the rapper’s natural narrative skills. “Hardly Hanging On”, a synth-drenched symphony of regret, gives the album a beating heart just as it draws to a close. Still, on an album that was truly worthy of the assembled talent here, even these highlights would be relegated to lulls separating the best bits.
Apart from the snazzy three-S continuity thing, Sisyphus is a name that Stevens has said was chosen in recognition of the apparent futility of this dubious combo. “We have so little in common but we have deep love for each other and we are pushing that stone together,” said Stevens in an interview. The image of Sisyphus pushing his mythological boulder up an endless hillside might be an apt metaphor for bonding over an impossible challenge, but as much as it’s nice when artists get along, it’s impossible not to wish the end result wasn’t such an uphill struggle for the listener.