Just who the heck is this Sufjan Stevens fellow anyway? After releasing a debut album that sounded somewhat like earlier Elliot Smith with a more worldly musical influence, his follow-up is a 14-track scattershod electronic effort that contains 12 "programmic songs for the animals of the Chinese Zodiac." The album itself is actually comprised of 14 tracks, (the tracks "Year Of The Asthmatic Kitty" and "Year Of Our Lord" bookend things) and is absolutely packed to capacity, with nearly as much data as the CD format will hold (79 minutes and 10 seconds).
Anyone who'd heard Stevens already knew he had a penchant for being prolific (his first disc clocked in at well over 70 minutes too), but his change of musical direction will probably baffle others. Those not surprised or scared away, though, will find that instead of jumping on board the electronic flagship and sinking, Stevens actually has released quite an excellent album that jumps from style to style, and definitely never gets boring.
After opening with a short wheezing burst, the album stutters into the haphazard "Year Of The Monkey." Comprised of chunky, glitched-out beats and quiet chiming melodies, it eventually builds into an almost cacophonous dirge with horns and other oddities. If that weren't weird enough, "Year Of The Rat" follows up with an almost Baroque-sounding harpsichord melody that winds and weaves for over 8 hypnotic minutes.
"Year Of The Ox" follows up with some playful melodies and a super chunky beat that recalls the squirrely electronics of Mouse On Mars. "Year Of The Tiger" takes nearly the same musical route, but features some light vocal 'la's' from Liz James and adds another nice layer to things. The rest of the album tinkers with tons of different styles still. "Year Of The Snake" is actually one of the more stripped-down tracks on the disc, moving along with a wandering keyboard melody before near orchestral bursts overtake it, while "Year Of The Dragon" pushes into repetitive, Steve Reich territory with almost 10 minutes of building tones.
Stevens himself adds some vocals on the warm, rich watery electronics of "Year Of The Dog," while the only track which breaks title-formula ("Enjoy Your Rabbit") arrives as a dirty, jangling rock instrumental. It sounds a fair amount of-of-place on the disc, but fortunately doesn't run too long, and the tracks on either side of it are both quite good. While a few of the tracks run a bit long, and a couple don't quite work quite as well, it's still a very fun disc, with lots of different areas explored. With two very-good albums in two completely different genres, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.