Pushing That Boulder: The Heady Electro-Rap of Sisyphus

Peter Holslin lives in a top-secret mountain hideout You know how, in some jazz performances, there’s a song where every member of the band gets to play a solo? The saxophonist will stand up, toot...
By    April 10, 2014


Peter Holslin lives in a top-secret mountain hideout

You know how, in some jazz performances, there’s a song where every member of the band gets to play a solo? The saxophonist will stand up, toot out some fancy lines, then he’ll sit down, and then the trumpeter will stand up, show off a little, sit down, etc. etc., until even the bassist and drummer get to do their thing? The new, self-titled album by Sisyphus—a trio composed of balladeer Sufjan Stevens, rapper Serengeti and eclectic artist Son Lux, who’ve previously collaborated under the name s/s/s—reminds me of that. Even though the trio is playing heady electro-rap instead of jazz, the sentiment feels the same: Here are three fine musicians banning together in friendly collaboration, flexing their talents.

Of course, collaborations like these do not always turn out well—sometimes the chemistry isn’t there, or the respective skillsets just don’t jibe. (For a particularly egregious example, see the 1994 album Sidi Mansour, which teamed Algerian singing legend Cheikha Rimitti with and Robert Fripp from King Crimson and Flea.) In Sisyphus’ case, even the name itself—referring to the ruler of Greek mythology who was condemned to continually push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down—suggests this mismatched partnership is doomed for failure. Against all odds, though, the trio’s album proves to be a wonderful listen, with smart production, sculpted beats and ambitious songwriting making up for occasional kookiness.

On the album—which was commissioned by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, and inspired in part by the work of artist Jim Hodges—the trio follows a serviceable, tag-team approach: While Son Lux provides heady beats and comfy, crystal-clear production, Serengeti and Stevens toggle between the former’s even-keeled raps and the latter’s more flowery, singer-songwriter urges. This balancing act can be maddening at times—on “My Oh My,” I can practically feel my blood pressure rising as I try to parse the sudden jerks between Serengeti’s reference-laden rhymes and Stevens’ piercing flute figures. But the trio pulls it off on the epic “Rhythm of Devotion,” a multi-part ode to romantic commitment in which Serengeti’s brawny attitude, Son Lux’s rhythmic complexity and Stevens’ sweet-talking croons lock together like a Valentine’s Voltron.

Son Lux, a New York City musician whose real name is Ryan Lott, does a lot to keep the album colorful: For all of its structural complexities, the most notable thing about album opener “Calm It Down” is his electronic kick drum, a full-bodied piece of ear candy that bumps along through much of the track. But Lux’s collaborators also have a gift for understated detail: ’Geti’s simple narrative imagery in “Lion’s Share” turns a real-life prison break into the stuff of winsome fable, while Sufjan’s breathy vocals in “Take Me” capture the blissful ache of desire in a way The Postal Service’s vanilla beats never could.

When it comes down to it, much of Sisyphus sounds like the work of three like-minded artists, not one cohesive unit. But the trio achieves mind-meld on the album’s final cut, “Alcohol,” a heady anthem about the struggles of addiction that grabs you right away with its swinging, machine-march beat. Though not every player gets equal footing on the track (Stevens’ voice doesn’t show up till the very end, and even then it’s submerged in effects), they all play a crucial role in making it the best song on the album. There’s no saying if and/or when these guys will put out another album, but with a track like this, here’s hoping they’ll keep pushing that boulder.

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