Those who jumped on the Sufjan Stevens bandwagon after the astronomical success of 2005’s Illinois should brace themselves for two stern tests in October: his elaborate mixed-media tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and a revision of his electronic instrumental album Enjoy Your Rabbit with the aid of contemporary string quartet Osso. The delightfully eccentric Enjoy Your Rabbit played as a cyclone of anarchic electronic sounds, conceived as a tribute to the creatures of the Chinese zodiac with a mishmash of blips, bleeps, and clanging beats. With such a broad range of widely diverging sounds running through the album, one could be forgiven for doubting its potential as a chamber-music crossover, but this is the enormous task which Stevens has entrusted to four New York and Berlin-based musicians for Run Rabbit Run. Armed only with a viola, a cello, and two violins, the frenzied homage to our Lord and 12 select animals is given a new lease of life in Osso’s minimalist arrangements.
There are, of course, certain tracks that emerge from this transition with more conviction than others, but even on these more ill-fated entries it’s impossible to detract from the epic nature of the project and the technical prowess needed to execute it. The title track, for example, takes raucous grunge chaos and fashions a chillingly tense number with jarring bow slides and an enthralling call-and-response between Maria Jeffers’s bellowing cello and Marla Hansen’s shrieking viola, while Jannina Barefield and Brooke Quiggins’s violin duels with its slighter sibling over the Jeffers’s long sonorous cello strokes on “Year of the Dragon.” To think that four musicians with only three different instruments can remodel Stevens’s seemingly limitless arsenal of electronic sounds is an incredible feat in itself, especially when executed with such lavish distinction.
Run Rabbit Run is also replete with infectious string melodies, none more so than the majestic “Year of the Dog.” A layered prologue, where the rapid squeaks of Hansen’s viola underpins whimsical violin work, sets the stage for rich cello murmurs to form a skeleton for the core melody. The tandem violins make their most lasting impression here, taking Stevens’s spacey reverie and crafting an utterly sumptuous polyphony. Album opener “Year of the Ox” is also blessed with these vivacious sounds, though it struggles to translate the original’s cacophonous hodgepodge of a middle eight. “Year of the Snake” is a meandering suspense tale, twice teasing us with phony bridges before rewarding our patience with a chorus worthy of a king: The foghorn-like cello repeats a warm drone while the violins execute the snake’s regal refrain in unison.
Run Rabbit Run‘s ample highlights not only illustrate Osso’s mastery of their string instruments but emphasize Stevens’s incredible talent as a songwriter and arranger. Granted, the album is not universally accessible; after all, this is not a legitimate follow-up to Illinois. With the ambitious “50 states project” on apparent hiatus for the time being, those hankering after Stevens’s unique strain of baroque pop will be left wanting here. Still, his fans should endeavor to hear this record’s imaginative, cavernous, inspired sound.