Sisyphus is a collaboration between the orchestral and highly literate indie-folk songwriter Sufjan Stevens, the up-and-coming electronic and beats artist/producer Son Lux, and the rapper Serengeti. Their 2014, self-titled album is my favorite new album of the year so far.
Stream the entire Sisyphus Self-Titled Album: Link
Full Disclosure: This was written by a huge fan of Sufjan’s work. I’m moderately aware of Son Lux’s output (I loved his 2013 record Lanterns), and I know almost nothing about Serengeti’s work outside of his collaborations with this group. So keep in mind, my frame of reference going into this is “how is Sisyphus going to fit into the Sufjan canon?”
In 2012, these three artists released an EP under the moniker S/S/S called “Beak & Claw.” It came and went without much fuss, barely making a splash outside of the world of the hardcore fans of each of the individual artists involved. Overall, the EP is a mixed bag that relies heavily on the odd lyrical prowess of Serengeti. His rap style took me a long time to get used to. On the EP, he maintains a flat, inflectionless tone while dropping strange character studies and I, for one, had never heard anything like it. Admittedly, I was in it for Sufjan, and tracks like Museum Day gave me my “fix” because he was featured prominently on the choruses. And then there’s the weird, but ultimately charming, song about going to prom with the Octomom, a reference that already dates the song.
Stream the Beak & Claw EP from s/s/s: Link
Overall the EP didn’t do it for me. I liked it, but something about the effort always left me unsatisfied. So when a collaborative album was announced under the name Sisyphus, I was unsure what to think. However, the first single Calm It Down assured me that, while this would be unlike anything I’ve heard from Sufjan or Son Lux, it would be an incredibly interesting and, likely, moving experience. Calm It Down is the sort of song that takes the listener on a journey. It starts as a thumping list of reasons to chill your actions out, but shifts about halfway into a semi-ethereal back-and-forth that typifies the sort of conversation that you have with yourself in your most vulnerable moments. There’s that voice that says, “I cause all of my problems” (“Mine is the pressure, mine is the pain”) versus the voice of reason (“you need to calm it down”).
Watch the lyric video for Calm It Down: Link
There’s plenty of truly beautiful moments on this album. Take Me, I Won’t Be Afraid andHardly Hanging On are fairly straightforward electronic ballads. If you like Sufjan Steven’s music, you owe it to yourself to listen to these three songs at the very least. They are highlights that could have been dropped right into the middle of Age of Adz.
Watch the music video for Take Me (NSFW): Link
Something about the delivery that Serengeti employs on the Sisyphus record works much better than it did on S/S/S. There’s an intensity that he brings that lends the album an urgency that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. When he’s not rapping about the typical things rappers go on about on tracks like Booty Call, he shares personal and intimate slices of life like the dysfunctional family narrative described in Dishes In The Sink.
Watch the music video for Booty Call: Link
And then there are the weirder cuts like Alcohol and the aforementioned Booty Call. (When the tracklist dropped, I was stunned that there would be a Sufjan album with a track called Booty Call on it.) Almost 100% at odds with the more vulnerable, personal moments sprinkled through the record are these beats and lines that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Kanye West track (“Let me get a condom, put it on my Mazda”), but that’s part of the appeal of this record. The collaboration between the three of these artists covers so much conceptual and musical territory that you literally cannot tell what you’re going to hear next.
Watch the lyric video for Alcohol: Link
For the most part, the record sounds like the halfway point between Son Lux’s most recent album Lanterns and Sufjan’s album Age of Adz. The production on the record is insanely well done. There’s this cavalcade of ideas, but every beat, every electronic flourish, feels like it’s where it needs to be at any given moment. Ultimately, this album represents the work of three artists who do not have much in common throwing idea after idea against a wall and seeing what sticks. It occasionally feels like a tug-of-war, but the three artists’ styles meld together incredibly well on this record. It is almost impossible to say where one member’s influence ends and another’s begins. And even though it isn’t a perfect record, I consider this album to be an overall success because of how solid the collaboration is.
The thing about Sisyphus is that, even if it doesn’t sound like your “cup of tea,” I implore you to give it one listen-through. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like it. There is no doubt in my mind that you’ll be truly engaged by something that this mixed bag has to offer.
Highlights: Calm It Down, Rhythm Of Devotion, Take Me, I Won’t Be Afraid
Wow! This is most fair review I’ve read about this album. I’m looking at you, you wanky reviewers at Pitchfork.