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The debut full-length from Sisyphus, an amalgamation of three disparate indie forces (Sufjan Stevens, Serengeti, Son Lux) commissioned by the Walker Art Center, is grounded in a thesis Sufjan relayed in a prerelease interview on the Asthmatic Kitty site: “We are all working towards nothing.” As much as Sisyphus is inspired by the abstract art of Jim Hodges, whose recent Walker retrospective coincided with the album’s release, it is also a reflection of Sufjan and Geti’s years spent on the brink of the abyss. “I am hardly hanging on” and “I’m prepared for death” are two of Sufjan’s more memorable mantras on the record.

Sisyphus is not the sum of its parts. Sure, you have your Son Lux electro trip-hop beats, your Sufjan falsetto and flute flourishes, your Geti character study, and that vague enduring sadness that seems to carry through the bulk of the latter two vocalists’ catalogues, but the whole is something few would have predicted coming in, especially after the group’s uneven 2012 debut EP, Beak & Claw. On Sisyphus, the trio has mercifully discarded the auto-tune elements that plagued the EP while keeping its whimsy and adding a layer or two of existential malaise. Geti and Sufjan play off each other well, as the sublime back-and-forth choruses of “Rhythm of Devotion” and “Lion’s Share” attest to, and Lux sews it all up with a composer's eye.

The grandiose nature of Sisyphus called upon Serengeti to rev up his delivery and pull deep from his bag of tricks. There are some scattered throwaway lines antithetical to his M.O. that one could imagine rose out of the record's wine-fueled three-week window of creation, but he delivers more often than not. The palpable anger in his delivery (e.g., “Rhythm of Devotion”) is mirrored by the fragility shown with couplets such as “Dishes in the sink, roaches in the wall/ Ain’t around my son so I bought the boy a ball” and the dramatic closing shift of “Calm It Down,” which finds Geti crooning “I’m on my own two feet/ But I’m not standing upright.”

Through 11 diverse-yet-cohesive tracks, Son Lux’s fractured, triumphant production provides the foundation for Serengeti and Sufjan to muse on drugs, death, and loneliness — and somehow make it catchy. The album’s closing track, “Alcohol,” is an exercise in Lux letting his hair down. Its frantic crescendo propels Serengeti’s stream-of-conscious prose and Sufjan’s muted backing wails into an emphatic exclamation point on a challenging, masterful group debut.

  • Album: Sisyphus
  • Artist: Sisyphus
  • Label: Asthmatic Kitty
  • Songs: (1) Calm It Down (2) Take Me (3) Booty Call (4) Rhythm of Devotion (5) Flying Ace (6) My Oh My (7) I Won’t Be Afraid (8) Lion’s Share (9) Dishes in the Sink (10) Hardly Hanging On (11) Alcohol
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