REVIEW: Sisyphus - Sisyphus

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Sisyphus - Sisyphus
Label - Asthmatic Kitty/Joyful Noise
Release Date - March 18, 2014

I assume that most listeners who stumbled across Sisyphus’s new self-titled LP decided to give it a listen thanks to a prior relationship with the music of either singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens or electronic musician Son Lux.  Not that the 3rd member of the group, rapper Serengeti, is any less accomplished (quite the contrary), but being the most prolific, creative, and whimsical (whimsy is Geti’s artistic mojo) rapper on the planet over the last decade hasn’t netted Geti near the financial windfall (or at least the touring opportunities) that have allowed artists like Sufjan and Son Lux to make music their first and only profession.  Maybe it’s because of this that the album still feels like a Serengeti vehicle even though it is a collaboration in the truest sense of the word.  This could also be because I’ve been huge Serengeti fan for the last 5 years and am not as intimately familiar with the work of Stevens and Son Lux, but the fact that Serengeti has been such a creative force (he’s released over 25 projects since 2005) and has so little to show for it is off putting to me and I’m sure it’s off putting to Stevens and Son Lux as well. 

This is the crux of this Sisyphus ‘super-group’, Stevens and Son Lux saying “How can we frame a pop album around Serengeti’s unique talents and make it click for listeners in a way his past work hadn’t been able too?”  The group got off to an uneven start with the s/s/s EP from 2012, a 4 song, long-distance collaboration that was weird enough to be interesting, but sounded like a multi-genre sound collage on which each artist worked separately and then jammed a bunch of ill-fitting pieces together.  While s/s/s wasn’t a outright failure, it was still hard to imagine that its better named follow-up Sisyphus would turn out to be an album of the year contender.  Originally conceived as an EP, the trio’s in person sessions at Son Lux’s wife’s parents’ Indianapolis home spawned so much great material that a full length album was born out of necessity.  As a whole, it is at once playful, melancholy, scary, and uplifting and never feels contrived.  The album itself, as well as the individual songs, are dynamic in nature.  Standouts like “Calm it Down”, “Rhythm of Devotion”, and “Alcohol” seem simple and repetitive initially, but morph into completely different shapes at their halfway points. 

“Calm it Down” kicks of the album and is perhaps the best example of the group’s chemistry.  It’s the type of song that people who aren’t familiar with Serengeti might write off as dumbed down, corny, or childish but it’s really a manifestation of Geti’s brilliant alter ego Kenny Dennis.  He’s not actually rapping as Kenny Dennis, but the common sense/simple advice mantra of “When you feel…You need to calm it down” is a perfect representation of the style and sense of humor that Geti displays on all of his Kenny Dennis records.  Serengeti fans will love the stripped down 1st half of the song that captures the KDz essence, but it’s the song’s melodic 2nd half that really sets the table for the album’s vibe.  It smoothly transitions to a reflective verse sung by Stevens backed by some great atmospheric production from Son Lux before Geti repeats the same verse over a solo piano to close the song.  It’s an amazing moment that leaves you wondering, “Did Sufjan write that verse or did Serengeti?” and “How did they come up with that idea?”  Nothing feels forced.  When the album transitions from “Calm it Down” to a reworking of a Sufjan one-off solo song from an old hard drive entitled “Take Me”, it feels natural, even if the song doesn’t involve Geti or Son Lux (that I know of).

While “Calm it Down” is a great song to kick off the project, it’s still a little too quirky to qualify as a pop song.  “Rhythm of Devotion” on the other hand is the type of song that is simply too big for its britches.  If it was forced into top 40 playlists for a week or so I think it could have legitimate staying power.  Son Lux’s funky alternating groove sets the table, but the interplay between Geti’s rage/repetitions of devotion and Sufjan’s silky smooth pleas to “be your man” make the song an infectious romp with heart that’s impossible to hate and hard to get sick of.  “Booty Call” and “Lion’s Share” are also quality pop songs that feature Serengeti’s rapping prominently.  Serengeti’s clever sexual wordplay on “Booty Call” and ability to make a dance song out of a tale of two bank robbers on “Lion’s Share” are prime examples of his ingenuity as an artist. 

All three artists had a blast making this album together and you can feel it in the albums overall vibe.  While it’s a fun listen for the most part, they also have a serious side and allow it to really come out on the last 3 songs.  While “Calm It Down” sounds like it could have fit on a Kenny Dennis album, “Dishes In The Sink” is more similar to an offering from one of Serengeti’s recent albums like Saal or Family and Friends.  The emotional deadpan and descriptive detail that he displays on these types of tracks is funny, sad, and insightful all at the same time.  You’re never quite sure what events/relationships inspire these songs, but they always seems to come from a place of truth even if they’re completely fictional.  Sufjan Stevens complements both sides of Serengeti throughout Sisyphus, especially on “Hardly Hanging On”, a direct continuation of “Dishes In The Sink”.  It often sounds like Serengeti or Sufjan wrote pieces that the other either added onto or was able to view through a different lens and offer his own take.  Because of their willingness to try to grasp the others perspective and work together in person, tracks that might sound completely unrelated out of context stack together as if each song is an answer to the previous song's question.

While I've talked mostly about the songwriting talents of Serengeti and Sufjan Stevens throughout this review, Son Lux's amazing work behind the boards is not to be understated.   As a producer it seems there's nothing that Son Lux can't do and the full range of his talent is on display throughout Sisyphus.  The album's two best songs "Rhythm of Devotion" and "Alcohol" are perhaps the best examples of the power and range of his production.  "Rhythm of Devotion" shows his ability to craft Daft Punk-esque dynamic anthems and my favorite song of 2014 "Alcohol" features a subtly shifting industrial beat that is just getting interesting when Serengeti's stunning verses about hereditary addiction are wrapping up.  While I may get the impression that Serengeti's unique talents are the fulcrum for the music that Sisyphus makes, this is an album that defies any genre classification.  If anything it feels like the discovery of a new genre, an album that truly sounds different from anything else out there from an era where most everything sounds like a distorted copy of a copy.

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