Sufjan Stevens’s Ambitious Trip Through Heaven and Earth
Maybe you’re not a member of the shoe-gazing indie music underground, but you like tunes that rise above the lowest common denominator. Maybe you don’t attend creative workshops to learn how to be a better writer, but you appreciate good fiction. Maybe you’re looking for something musically that’s a little different, eclectic perhaps, spiritual definitely, but not saccharine, not contemporary Christian—just lived out, incarnational. Something like Nick Drake, Brian Wilson, Neil Young and Flannery O’Connor all rolled into one. Maybe you’re looking for the music of Sufjan Stevens.
Sufjan (pronounced Soof-Yawn) Stevens is the biggest artist to hit the underground music scene since the Shins revitalized the post-Nirvana world at Sub-Pop records. Growing up in Detroit he learned to play the oboe and myriad other instruments in the school band. But words were his passion, and after college he moved to New York to write a novel. When the novel failed to materialize, he started writing songs. The rest is history.
A few years ago he was nothing more than a creative writing grad student at the New School in Greenwich, then his 5th album, Illinoise, topped out most of the critic’s “best of 2005” lists, and he was playing the Lincoln Center in New York.
Sufjan’s music is a wonderfully eclectic melding of old time
folksiness married to instrumental styles as wide-ranging and varied as Celtic
pipes and near Eastern sitars. Miraculously he manages to
take all these disparate elements and make them work, a rare feat for any
artist, let alone one so young and new to the game. Discordant horns, off-time
rhythms, finger picked banjos, a cacophony of old styles wrapped in luscious
melodies —old wine in new wineskins.
Yet to attempt to define his style is by the reduction of language to do it injustice. He is not another post-college acoustic duo. He is not another cookie-cutter bohemian. Like all great artists, he’s an interpreter of the styles that came before him, and a synchretist that makes the music his own.
His first album, A Sun Came, showcased a mastery of many different instruments and his uncanny ability to steal, blend and reinvent genres, but it lacked a certain cohesiveness and unity that left some songs standing well on their own with others stranded in a wasteland of hodgepodge. The brilliance is all there, but the refinement is lacking.
One gets the sense that Stevens knew this himself as he launched into his second ambitious project, a cycle of instrumental songs done on a computer with no vocals, and titles that followed the signs of the Chinese Zodiac. Though his idiosyncratic melodies flow through the work, it’s clearly an experimental piece and only of historiographic value. It wasn’t until his fourth album, Seven Swans, that Stevens hit his stride. With its stark banjo intro, plaintive lyrics, permeating spirituality and multilayered-sing-in-the-round crescendos, Seven Swans indelibly establishes Sufjan’s trademark style. But it was his third project, Michigan, that set him on a course that would permanently cement his reputation.
Michigan is the start of one of the most ambitious album projects undertaken by any artist in recent memory. Able to claim Stevens as a native son, Michigan represents the first of the 50 states Stevens plans portray in album form. Boswell wrote the life of Johnson, Sufjan wants to write albums for each state of the Union.
Not the great American novel he set out to write as a grad student in New York, but perhaps one of the great American pop music movements ever attempted. It’s hard not to be cynical about the scope and presumption of such an endeavor by a young artist, but if the first two albums in the series are any indication, it will be a trip worth taking.
From stories about the dispossessed workers in Flint, Michigan, to the state motto and landmarks, to the story of John Wayne Gacy in Illinois, and even a nod to some indigenous insects, the state-inspired albums perfectly allow Stevens’s fictional/lyrical gifts to flourish. In a way, the albums are geographical tone poems focused on whatever knowledge he has of the areas filtered through bountiful literary references. Saul Bellow and Carl Sandburg make appearances on Illinoise, and many other references pop up along the way. One can only hope Stevens has enough drive and enough years left to finish the task. The characters and soundscapes he is now free to articulate as a result of this project allow him to evoke a small panoply of life in a way that is sacramental.
Spiritually speaking, Stevens stands at the forefront of a widespread movement of young people looking to live out their faith sacramentally (Seven Swans represents the gifts of the Seven Sacraments of the Holy Spirit), willing to persist in the face of the mystery of God and fully engaged with the world through art and liturgy. He writes as a believer not willing to accept the easy answers, as one who knows the failures of sin, the silence of God and the complications of belief. The work often has the tone of a Lamentation or a Psalm.
Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth
Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens
Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window
Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
—“Casimir Pulaski Day”
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
—“John Wayne Gacy, Jr. ”
As an Episcopalian who is a bit embarrassed by the institutionalization and commodification of most church culture, Stevens stands in line with artists like Dorothy Sayers and Flannery O’Conner, who considered excellence at their craft the primary discipline of a Christian. One gets the impression that Stevens doesn’t want to be a mouthpiece or a preacher, but rather that he wants to be someone who lives and looks for God in the doubts, the stories and the musical movements of the Spirit.
His light is not under a bushel, it’s lived out in his words and music. It’s difficult not to heap effusive praise on an artist that takes his craft so intently and ambitiously while also managing to glorify the Lord, but when you realize that’s what Christians are called to do in this world, you settle back into the fact that Sufjan Stevens is just another human like you or me, with one small proviso—he has a huge gift for writing songs. I for one am looking forward to the journey ahead as seen through his art, and the many states left to interpret.
©2006 Christopher Stratton
To learn more about
Sufjan Stevens, visit the Asthmatic Kitty Web site. For further listening, the author recommends the following titles. Help explorefaith.org by following the links below to purchase a title.