Hoping to engage a half-hour of musical complexity and the stunning shifts and layers which make it possible, Sufjan Stevens may have bitten off more than he can chew. His late-night sad hours of Carrie and Lowell are long behind him, and he pushes on with interesting choices in sight. Reflective and sentimental as ever but with a contemporary spin on the compilations and compositions within. Not sure what to expect from Stevens’ work here? Don’t worry. Nobody knows. Ekstasis, the opening track and only single, gave nothing more than the briefest of hints as to what this fused compilation would become. Piano. Stevens is the Music Man but he does not come from far away. Instead, he fuses this familiar feel of classical piano music often heard in Tom and Jerry and concert halls with his own style. Reflections is just that.
Ballet boredom opens first track Ekstasis, a sweet little number which feels somewhat aimless. In trying to create a compelling mood, Stevens seems desperate to create something which connects in this freestyle yet pre-planned spirit. Two contrary and spirited attempts work against one another, pushing and pulling as they do and launching into the intimate powers of Revanche. As intense as its opening is, the mellow fallout, the twinkling piano hall grace which takes place here is wonderful and a real high for the album. It does nothing for the wider momentum, but bottle these seconds up and return to them, a climbing, sophisticated and earnest experience pokes through in golden moments. Here and there, Stevens can showcase the raw emotional range he does with his usual style of records, just it is spotty throughout Reflections.
Soft and sombre moments across those seven tracks are worth hanging around for. Like the jazz hall musician, like the lounge singer and performer, sometimes a gorgeous note is struck. Enough to hook you back in, more than plenty to bring the attention back to the never-ending piano. Reflections struggles to stand out. It may have a noted figure behind it but many of these tracks, Mnemosyne and Rodinia for instance, have no voice or heart of their own. Splitting the tracks three ways, with Stevens, Timo Andres and Conor Hanick collaborating, there is no way of knowing who is where or why. You cannot streamline the heart but Reflections tries to. It succeeds, in some way, however minimal those seconds of hope may be.
Each track has something particular to it which lets it breathe, stand out and explore itself for just a few genuine moments. But it is soon compartmentalised, back into the safety of the pre-drawn lines of reflection. Do not reflect in that way, pack that right in. Slapping hands away from the forbidden keys, ignoring the potential builds. Frustratingly consistent those happenings may be, it is the decision Reflections takes. An album which only works if you have a leather chair and a fireplace to sit and contemplate next to. Brooding background music makes no real charge to be all that different, nor tremendous enough to settle into contemporary compositions. A line is blurred, but Stevens and company make no successful or major mount. Nice enough for one run, but the cobwebs are already forming on the edges of their pianos.