In Greek philosophy, an aporia is a puzzle, or a state of confusion – like the one that most of the world has found itself in, either at the end of last year, the beginning of this one, or even the last couple of weeks.
In our new, unprecedented suspended reality, every gesture, every walk outside, every touch of a friend’s hand is pregnant with significance. To put it bluntly, humans need comfort, and they’ve always sought for the answers to lifes great questions in music.
But the reality is, searching for answers from anyone – musicians, artists, governmental figures – in a situation that is by definition hard to understand and articulate is futile, so perhaps the best we can hope for is some understanding company.
Sufjan Stevens’ new collaborative album with his stepfather and longtime collaborator Lowell Brams, Aporia, is a good companion to this confusing reality, not because of prescient lyrics or a philosophical message, but because of the space it gives the listener to fill with their own messy thoughts, and guidance offered with a light touch.
Largely instrumental, and running to 21 short tracks, it traverses soothing, slow-moving ambient (“Disinheritance”), wonky folk (“Palinodes”), atonal electronic sketches (“For Raymond Scott”), and a dozen other frankenstein micro-genres.
It has shades of its original proposition as a ‘new age’ album, but feels more like the soundtrack for a non-existent film in its make-up of short phrases among developed songs where cadences and phrases are reprised across tracks. The tingling electronic melody of the opening track pops up again in “The Unlimited”; the heavy machinations of “Agathon” return for “Climb That Mountain”.
It's also gently persuasive, with its changes of pace and timbres – and its consistent propulsive percussion – suggesting a journey over a series of changing landscapes and situations. This could be said for any number of instrumental albums, but the sense of Aporia as incidental music waiting to be filled out with stories, ideas and dialogue is strong. It has enough space to hold the thoughts of those working at an unprecedented pace to try and outrun their anxiety; and it can provide some structure for those whose thoughts are flat and detached.
Of course, I could be just projecting, in that hopeful, futile way that humans in a crisis tend towards. Aporia’s creators could never have imagined the world that it would be released into: it was originally supposed to mark Brams’ retirement from his position at the head of Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, and the pair have been working on the songs for years. It’s an unexpected but fitting swansong: like Brams’ presence in Stevens’ life and work, it is a gentle guide, and an encouragement to give our thoughts space.