When I say “super group” I’m guessing you don’t immediately picture a trio consisting of a relatively obscure rapper who admittedly sounds a lot like Kool AD, an avant beatsmith with ties to Lorde and a formerly prolific indie rock icon whose recent output has slowed to a relative trickle. The “super group” Sisyphus doesn’t exactly defy expectation so much as provoke pleasurable befuddlement. Serengeti, Son Lux and Sufjan Stevens? The unlikelihood of the combination is underscored by the album’s construction. Son Lux plays the only child to Stevens and Serengeti’s divorced parents by tailoring his production to the needs of whoever is currently in the spotlight. Their entertaining self-titled debut divides its time between Serengeti’s playful word association and Sufjan’s new age R&B croon. The result feels more like two artists sharing the space of an LP though moments of inspiring synthesis do crop up.
The artistic differences between Serengeti and Sufjan Stevens get established early. Opener “Calm It Down” finds the former providing some sound advice about maintaining one’s cool while the latter experiments with a vocoder. Production-wise it can sometimes be difficult to discern where Son Lux ends and Sufjan starts. The synth squelches of The Age of Adz (2010) are here as well as a number of other familiar touches. Steven’s characteristically elegant harmonies and noteworthy instincts as an arranger can be found carrying listeners dreamily through what are otherwise interludes stretched to the length of an entire tracks. “Calm It Down” marks an effective fusion of Steven’s gifts as a guest artist, namely his beautiful, damaged voice and Serengeti’s skills as an MC. His declarative cadences and simple, unequivocal thrust lend “Calm It Down” an infectious tilt. The song woozily transforms into the languid “Take Me” which, at nearly six minutes, thoroughly overstates its case though its immaculate production does an admirable job of carrying Steven’s breathy wistfulness.
Sisyphus tends to shift gears without warning. “Booty Call” is driven by Serengeti’s relentless monotone and effectively establishes the very different aims of these prominent artists and why their pairing sometimes puts them at odds. Sufjan Stevens isn’t exactly known for his brevity. Meanwhile, Serengeti’s latest solo outing, the Kenny Dennis LP, barely topped over 30 minutes. At 52 minutes Sisyphus is long by commercial standards. The culprit is neither artist in particular though the lengthier tracks definitely spend more time with Stevens. Sisyphus, like a marathon runner who accidentally shows up at a triathlon, is a well-sequenced album that suffers from pacing issues. The thoroughly enjoyable “Rhythm of Devotion,” which finds Serengeti on his “New Slaves” shit with Son Lux dropping what could conceivably be a TV on the Radio sample and Stevens channeling his inner disco sexpot, navigates its style changes with effortlessness that is nowhere to be found on the trio of relatively flat tracks that follow. “Flying Ace” gives the impression that Serengeti has something important to say but prefers distance to depth as he breathlessly chases our admiration. “My Oh My” finds Stevens shoving fluttering, Illinoise-era woodwinds into an otherwise foggy stream-of-conscious. And “I Won’t Be Afraid” does little to improve on the pattern of slow repetition that was thoroughly played out by “Take Me.”
As an album, Sisyphus is not necessarily unfocused though it does tend to follow its impulses, which occasionally leads to periods of indulgence. The reward for the patience needed to get through this admittedly rough middle section is album highlight “Lion’s Share.” The closest thing Sisyphus has to a lead single, “Lion’s Share” is that moment when a group of friends who get along just fine alight on a shared epiphany that unites them even if only for a few minutes. Unlike so much of the chopped up, unpredictable fair on Sisyphus, “The Lion’s Share” contains elements that unite its disparate parts. A staccato guitar line that wouldn’t be out of place on Random Access Memories is enough to guide the listener through the track’s shifting sonic landscape. The album’s final three tracks demonstrate the group’s secret strengths and rather public weaknesses. “Dishes in the Sink” contains Serengeti’s most sincere and concrete lyrics. Unsurprisingly they reveal a thoughtful, troubled artist. “We got no portions to divvy up in two,” he sighs as he goes to describe “the lonely rhythm of private life.” After another sweeping detour from Stevens, Serengeti returns exhausted and defeated. Son Lux strips the track to its barest elements so that every crack in Serengeti’s voice can be heard as he trails off into oblivion. Sufjan comes to the rescue with “Hardly Hanging On,” by far his strongest feature on the album. Regrettably, the boys in Sisyphus undercut the natural rhythm of their album by tacking on “Alcohol” whose meandering outro takes far too long to deliver a climax that, while enlivening, frustrates due to its lack of necessity.
It’s not terribly surprising that Sisyphus aren’t interested in doing things by the books. If their music videos are any indication, this record, while undeniably rich, is not intended as a protectionist artifact for those who feel that the state of contemporary music ought is a portioned three-course meal rather than an all you can eat buffet. The former poster child for the full-length album as grand artistic statement, Sufjan Stevens has since abandoned his faith in the LP as a worthwhile concept. Serengeti is a prolific rapper whose massive discography hardly suggests that any one entry might be more precious than another. And Son Lux has production credits that stretch from Anticon to Hollywood and back. Stakes are admittedly pretty low for these dudes, which makes everything here feel even more rewarding. Sisyphus probably could have benefitted from an outside editor but as an album that seemingly doesn’t give a damn about the rules of being an album, cutting out the fat would have meant taking some of the flavor with it.