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BWW Album Review: SUF/SOND's A PERFECT LITTLE DEATH Is Imperfect But Lovely

The album is an indie-folk reimagining of Sondheim's greatest hits.

BWW Album Review: SUF/SOND's A PERFECT LITTLE DEATH Is Imperfect But Lovely

Sufjan Stevens and Stephen Sondheim might not seem like the most intuitive musical pairing, which is exactly the point of SUF/SOND's new album, A Perfect Little Death. Created by Eleri Ward, SUF/SOND puts a new spin on classic Sondheim tunes, giving them the soft indie-folk treatment. It's a creative and often intriguing exercise that gives a new perspective on these iconic tunes, although it's not flawless across the board.

The album starts strong with a delicate, wistful cover of Sweeney Todd's "Johanna," the kind of song that seems tailor-made to get this kind of soft folk cover. It's tender and bittersweet, just like the original, and perhaps even more mournful in this arrangement. "Every Day a Little Death" is similarly strong, although it does feel a little delicate, shifting the mood from bitterness to simple sadness, a shift I'm not 100% sold on.

It's when the contrast between the Sondheim songs - which are, first and foremost, pieces of storytelling - and the soft-folk sound becomes too large that the album doesn't entirely succeed. For instance, "Pretty Women" is part of a major turning point in Sweeney Todd, immediately preceding the "Epiphany" and having a creepy, violent double meaning in context. Turned into a folksy, dainty little song strips out the irony and tension and makes it no different than any slew of similar songs. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," later in the album, suffers from the same problem. There are, simply, some songs that this style of cover does not mesh with, and despite best efforts to keep them at least a little haunting, it doesn't gel every time.

Most of the tracks on the album, however, acquit themselves pretty well. Some of the most complex and nuanced Sondheim songs are the ones where he digs past simply "sad" and into haunting warnings or complicated melancholy. Ward's arrangements meld perfectly with "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods or "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, both of which seem tailor-made for this delicate, soft sound paired with mournful lyrics. It's a creative way to tie these songs to a different musical style while also marveling at the versatility of Sondheim's melodies and lyrics. The album's closer, "Sunday," falls into this category as well, bringing the album to an end with something that's appropriately hopeful and bittersweet.

In a few cases, the style works fine, but there's a bit of a lack of build that's inherent in the Sondheim songs but not quite as clear in their updated arrangements here. "Finishing the Hat" and "Being Alive" - especially the latter - are complex story songs, moving their characters through intense emotions and revelations. They "sound" perfectly fine, lovely even, on this album, but one can't help feeling like they're just barely missing something, with arrangements that don't quite capture that emotional range that makes them such powerhouses in the first place.

Fundamentally, it's not just the mastery of musical craft that makes Sondheim one of the absolute greats - it's his knack for telling interesting, complicated stories full of interesting, complicated human emotions. SUF/SOND succeeds in some cases, but not in others, at capturing these nuances, but the end result, at least, is still an enjoyable listening experience.

SUF/SOND is now available from Ghostlight Records.

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