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‘Meditations’ Review: An Ambient Music Album with Good Intentions by Sufjan Stevens

3 Stars

Album cover for Sufjan Stevens' "Meditations."
Album cover for Sufjan Stevens' "Meditations." By Courtesy of Sufjan Stevens / Asthmatic Kitty Records
By Beatrice H. Youd, Contributing Writer

Sufjan Stevens’ most recent album takes listeners on an introspective, emotional journey. Stevens released “Meditations” on April 8 in the wake of his father’s death as the first part of a five-album volume titled “Convocations,” which will chronicle loss and mourning. “Meditations” is a short album — only around 27 minutes long — that provides a musical representation of grief. Stevens’ lo-fi, electronic instrumentals revolve around pedal tones, complemented by layers of a few repeating chords.

The first songs — “Meditation I,” “Meditation II,” and “Meditation III” — are calm and repetitive, almost claustrophobic, trapping the listener in a mild-mannered loop of flat electronic strings. There is little to no chord progression, adding to the stagnant, almost suspended, atmosphere.

Moving on to Meditations IV to VII, the mood changes as Stevens introduces more dissonance by layering more frequent chord changes, piano, and percussive static. These more textured, dynamic, and jarring songs create a sense of disruption and unease.

The final three meditations introduce a more upbeat tempo. Strings feature prominently again, this time with electronic vocals and light percussive textures. The different instruments crescendo and then taper off into simple electronic chords. Stevens paints a vivid picture of the static aspects of loss, with sounds that seem to capture an inability to accept and move on. It is so easy to follow the loop back to “Meditation I,” returning right back to where Stevens begins.

Although the album narrates a compelling emotional journey for Stevens, the sound itself can often feel choppy, with truncated, unsatisfying endings to each song. The absence of dynamics, though interesting thematically, has the unfortunate effect of making the album’s songs feel two-dimensional. Overall, the musical structure of “Meditations” is not especially unique, sounding similar to other lo-fi background tracks. Songs are only differentiated by sudden, jolting shifts from strings to piano, which add to the album’s disjointed atmosphere. The lack of transitions between the relatively short sections also adds to a less cohesive flow, interrupting the album’s end goal: the listener’s emotional journey.

Stevens describes the “Convocations” album suite as a “reflection on a year of anxiety, uncertainty, isolation, and loss.” The lack of lyrics makes room for contemplation: This album tries to give listeners space to think and interpret. Stevens’s laudable goals may resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one. Whether listeners will enjoy or come back to the album, though, is another question.

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