Conventional wisdom states that Undisputed Era Of The Album took place in the 1970s. But thanks to technological circumstances and the growth in popularity of independent labels, the first decade of the 2000s was arguably just as grand an era for the album as any other — not financially-speaking, no; but in terms of offering a form for musicians to deliver big artistic statements? Absolutely. And perhaps no artist took better advantage of this confluence of technological and cultural trends than Sufjan Stevens.
In 2003, following a pair of less-than-extraordinary LPs, Stevens stunned the independent music community with the epic concept album, Greetings From Michigan. A boldly ambitious and extraordinarily unique record, Michigan celebrated the quiet, pristine beauty of the Upper Peninsula, the Great Lakes, and other windswept natural wonders. Its emotional power center, however, lay in the album’s somber laments of the economic decay plaguing erstwhile industrial centers like Detroit. Stevens was hardly the first musician to document financial squalor with such empathy and poignancy. But unlike folk singers like Woody Guthrie, Stevens’ observations were largely apolitical, as mini-tragedies like “Flint” and “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black” aimed straight for the heart, leaving behind gaping emotional wounds that couldn’t be healed by swing state politics. Arriving four years before the global economic crisis — and over a decade before #FeelTheBern became a rallying cry for broke white Millennials — Michigan was a prescient omen for Americans who would soon join the citizens of Detroit in absorbing the impact of the wealthy’s decades-long campaign of reckless, criminal impropriety.
Meanwhile, the music on Michigan could best be described as “a very prog rock Christmas.” Only a few steps removed from Manheim Steamroller’s overwrought orgies of holiday embarrassment, Michigan was an enormous artistic risk and a hard sell to fans of indie rock — an offshoot of punk rock, which was itself a reaction to the same musical excesses Stevens embraced.
But Stevens’ talent, charisma, and earnest devotion to his vision were too powerful for even the crustiest punks to resist. Michigan announced Stevens as the American indie world’s pre-eminent musical polymath and savant, as he performed every horn and banjo and silver bell his one-man ramshackle orchestra had to offer. What’s most remarkable — and perhaps what saved Stevens from the ridicule of sneering, credibility-obsessed indie tastemakers — is that despite its dense and baroque maximalism Michigan is essentially a bedroom recording, crafted in Stevens’ home studio on a shoestring budget. That the record nevertheless sounds as if it were produced with the combined resources of every U2 album is a testament to Stevens’ immense talents for sure, but also a sign of the times: Michigan was among the first and finest “Pro Tools albums,” and evidence that consumer recording software could now turn anyone into Brian Eno — or at the very least, Flood. Moreover, this DIY ethic allowed composers of similarly thick and ambitious symphonies entry into the new indie canon formerly reserved for purveyors of cheap and dirty punk rock thrills.
All of this made Michigan an instant hit with critics and discerning audiences. But it didn’t hurt that the record came with a hell of a gimmick: Michigan, Stevens told us, was only the first of what would be 50 albums, each one devoted to a different state. To audiences too busy bemoaning the death of the album to realize they were consuming more of them than ever before, the conceit was irresistible. And to music journalists in the internet era, faced with an unprecedented avalanche of largely indistinguishable music, the 50 states concept was a killer narrative that helped set the artist apart from their endless, numbered peers. Stevens would later claim that he never really intended to follow through on the conceit, which is probably for the best: I would hate for him to have never recorded 2015’s heartbreaking Carrie & Lowell because he was too busy singing about smoking meth in Florida sinkholes or taking advantage of Delaware’s fortuitous corporate tax laws.
But Stevens wasn’t ready to abandon the 50 states project quite yet. After a brief detour with the stripped-down, apocalyptic Seven Swans — aka the One Where Stevens Revealed He’s An Evangelical Christian — and just two years removed from the enormous and ambitious Michigan, Stevens birthed the even more enormous and even more ambitious Illinoise.
Where Michigan was cold and bitter — like the eponymous Great Lake whose cold winds beat against the coat colors of Stevens’ protagonists — Illinoise was warm and welcoming, infusing dramas both big and small with earnest Midwestern enthusiasm. And where Michigan was hyper-focused on a specific breed of fatherless working-class wage slaves, Illinoise was expansive and generous with its storytelling, ferrying the listener through space, time, history, and myth, as Stevens regaled us with tales of UFOs, cavalry heroes, the Chicago World’s Fair, and zombies risen from the dead.
If rock music about the Lincoln-Douglas debates sounds horribly precious to your tastes, bear in mind that Stevens, unlike his massively popular contemporaries the Decemberists, isn’t interested in delivering social studies lectures. Instead, he renders these historical references as half-remembered details in an Impressionistic portrait of the artist as a young man. The song “Casimir Pulaski Day,” for instance, has little to do with the Polish Revolutionary War commander of its namesake, and everything to do with the excitement and shame of childhood sexual encounters.
These allusions and references have the effect of making the spectacular feel personal and the personal spectacular — not unlike the work of Illinois’ poet laureate Carl Sandberg, whose shadow looms long over Illinoise’s 22 tracks. At one point, Sandberg even visits Stevens in a dream, commanding the young musician-poet to capture with this record nothing less than “the regret of a thousand centuries of death.” Whether or not Stevens succeeds is a matter of opinion and taste. But either way, it’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that Illinoise is the most ambitious album this side of the millennium.
And that’s without even taking into consideration the music: a battalion of genres and instrumental machinery that adjectives like “bold” and “ambitious” fail to sufficiently describe. Once again, Stevens’ 500 sq. ft. orchestra proves that in terms of raw musical talent no one else in the indie rock world operates on his level (save for perhaps Joanna Newsom, the subject of another 10 Best Songs list). Illinoise shares much of the same musical DNA as Michigan, but here Stevens vastly expands upon the stylistic motifs of its spiritual predecessor. As before, Vince Guaraldi-inspired kitchen sink epics are punctuated by deceptively simple exercises in quiet devastation, allowing the fullness of the former to contrast powerfully with the sad emptiness of the latter. On Illinoise, however, Stevens offers up everything in between these two musical extremes, from “They Are Night Zombies!” — a dark funk anthem performed at half-speed with the creepy patience of a reanimated brain-eater — to “Out Of Egypt” — which pays homage to America’s greatest living composer, Steve Reich, by conjuring of frantic beauty out of the violent heart beats of a piano on the verge of combustion.
Having produced two bonafide classics just two years apart, maybe Stevens’ 50 states project didn’t sound so insane after all.
And then over four years passed. No California album. No New York album. No full-lengths at all from the formerly prolific artist, state-related or otherwise. Just as Illinoise was conceived and produced under the shadow of Sandberg, Stevens would have to escape his own formidable shadow before producing a follow up to his masterpiece. It took him five difficult years, during which he became afflicted with a strange, inexplicable disease that turned even the simplest tasks — like climbing the stairs or sitting through a children’s movie — into enormously painful ordeals. Moreover, the emotional aftershocks of the disorder were exacerbated by the fact that Stevens’ doctors could not figure out what was physically wrong with him.
Fortunately, the illness eventually passed as abruptly as it had arrived, and Stevens came out on the other side with his creative spirit restored. It’s a testament to the artist’s veneration of the album as a form that he refused to undertake that most special of artistic endeavors lightly. The glorious third act of “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” ends with the line, “Are you writing from the heart?” For Stevens, there is no other way.
The product of that tumultuous five-year period was The Age Of Adz. Though the album arrived with a less clearly defined concept than its two state-focused predecessors, The Age Of Adz is just as much a work of cohesive, singular ambition. But upon its release and still today, the album was deeply polarizing to die-hard Suf-fans, as it introduced a dizzying array of synthetic electronic sounds to the artist’s already dense mini-symphonies. The results were mixed, as the computer bleeps and squelches often felt incongruous to Stevens’ classicist melodies and instrumentation. Still, The Age Of Adz delivers more stunning, show-stopping moments of visceral emotion than the best work of most other artists — from the desperate, unhinged pleas to his invisible tormentors on “I Want To Be Well,” to the life-affirming cries of triumphant elation that conclude the 25-minute closer “Impossible Soul.”
Though generally well received, The Age Of Adz nevertheless marked the first time since Stevens’ pre-Michigan days that his ambitions extended beyond his grasp. The effect this semi-failure had on his musical psyche, however, may have been a net positive. The Age Of Adz was like a palette-cleanser — a playground where, absent the self-imposed restrictions and expectations of his fifty states project, Stevens could work out every personal and creative demon that had been pent up inside him for the past half-decade. I don’t know how closely Stevens reads reviews (or if he reads them at all), but the fact that The Age Of Adz was less-than-enthusiastically received may have illustrated to the artist that despite the success of long, massive albums like Michigan and Illinoise, more is not always more.
I say this because his follow up to The Age Of Adz, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, is his most spare and restrained record of this career. It’s also his best.
Armed for the most part with only an acoustic guitar and his aching, otherworldly tenor, Stevens delivers 12 broken-hearted yet emotionally conflicted odes to his mother who passed away three years earlier. Musically speaking, this is Stevens at his most minimal — and yet the listener hardly notices. It’s difficult to even justify the use of the word “minimal” to describe Carrie & Lowell, considering the richness of its storytelling, themes, and imagery, as well as the melodic and harmonic complexity Stevens is able to conjure out of little more than four tracks of voice and guitar. In many ways, Carrie & Lowell carries on the artistic legacy of indie rock’s most beloved lost son, Elliott Smith.
While Carrie & Lowell lacks the formal sonic ambition of his three previous albums (sans Swans of course), it is a work of equal thematic complexity. This is Stevens’ unofficial Oregon album, as the artist recalls childhood memories spent in the Beaver State. But instead of leaning on historical and mythical allusions as he did on Illinoise, Stevens zooms in on more commonplace details and locales, like summer camp cedars, public swimming pools, lemon yogurt, and the video store where his mother — who suffered from schizophrenia, depression, and substance abuse — left him and his four siblings. And through these more relatable elements — you won’t find zombie Mary Todd Lincoln leading an army of Blackhawks against an alien invasion, here — the audience feels a closeness to the singer and subject matter like never before. After hearing Carrie & Lowell, much of the artist’s past work takes on a more distant quality in retrospect, as if all those references and allusions — though often thrillingly-rendered — served as an unwelcome (but, at that point in his career, necessary) buffer between him and the listener. And with that wall lifted, Stevens has created his most personal album to date — a musical artifact every bit as raw and painful as the great tragedies of film and theater.
From Michigan to Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has embraced the album form as fully as anyone of his generation. And even if his records are no longer conceptually committed to this or that arbitrary plot of municipal space, The Age Of Adz and Carrie & Lowell still put forth singular, cohesive visions. For that reason, it feels a little inappropriate to extricate great tracks from these uniquely powerful albums. Then again, despite or perhaps because of these albums’ conceptual rigor, if you’re looking for perfection among Stevens’ repertoire you’re not likely to find it from front to back on any of these records, except maybe Carrie & Lowell. But as for songs? It’s not hard to find compositions worthy of the highest praise within his impressive oeuvre. Here are 10 of them.
10. “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross (from Carrie & Lowell, 2015)
In Western culture, we’re told at an early age that there are five stages of grief everyone experiences when coming to grips with a loved one’s death. But there’s one they don’t mention, despite its near-universal nature: the “getting embarrassingly, colossally drunk or high and having sex with people you probably shouldn’t” stage. Luckily the good Dr. Stevens has you covered on “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross.”
The death of Stevens’ mom, who as a sufferer of schizophrenia and drug addiction was often absent for much of her children’s young and adult lives, sent Stevens into an emotional tailspin. Perhaps as a way to be nearer to a woman he never really knew, he begins to replicate her reckless, self-destructive behavior — one of the few things he knows about this stranger who nevertheless brought him into this world. Throughout the song, Stevens consumes vague, menacing capsules of God-knows-what, gets “drunk to get laid,” and even finds himself contemplating an intentional, suicidal heroin overdose – uncertain only if he should smoke the drug, “inhaling its fire” and “chasing the dragon too far,” or to inject it and “drive that stake through the center of my heart,” likening himself to a vampire who’s already dead anyway. Finishing the job is just a formality.
A song like this, where every line is a suicidal ache save for one — more on that in a second — could easily come off as over-the-top hyperbole and therefore either fail to ring true or, even worse, feel like the unsophisticated ramblings of a teenager’s LiveJournal page. But the song achieves a level of sophistication with its compelling metaphor for his mother as a ghost or “shade” haunting and possessing Stevens from the grave, thus forcing him to reenact her earthly transgressions.
That is, until the very last line which is also the title of the song and a reference to a hymn by William Henry: “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” Because of the line’s abruptness and the way it conflicts tonally and thematically with the rest of the song, it seems on first listen like a cop-out that Stevens doesn’t quite earn. It’s as if he just now remembered that Jesus and Christianity are totally real and if he just gets his ass to church everything will be okay.
But Stevens imbues this line with enormous complexity. In the hymn he references, the “shadow of the cross” is a place of safe retreat, and the “shade” from which he’s retreating is his own mother. His very life and possibly his eternal soul may depend on escaping his mother’s ghost. But on the other hand, “shade” — as in the shade under a tree — signifies a place where one is protected and given relief from the elements.
This all adds up to Stevens still having no idea how to feel about his mother’s death, let alone deal with it, even after almost a whole record of painful introspection. Nor has he found a way to square his faith in Jesus with the alternating feelings of emptiness and overwhelmed bewilderment that this trauma has wrought. But great art isn’t about offering easy answers. And the way Stevens conjures these powerful thoughts and emotions then immortalizes them in such an honest and aesthetically beautiful vessel of pain and sorrow makes Carrie & Lowell one of the greatest musical achievements of this decade.
9. “Chicago” (from Illinoise, 2005)
The song may be called “Chicago,” but it’s more about the place — and, in a way, the person — Stevens leaves behind when he visits the glorious bustle of the Windy City. Despite the specificity of the title and the fact that it appears on Illinoise, “Chicago” doesn’t really have anything to do with Illinois at all. You’ll find no references here to Michael Jordan, the Navy Pier, or the doughy pits of processed cheese and prepackaged despair the locals call “pizza.” Thats because “Chicago” isn’t about what the city is; it’s about what the city represents. And like New York, which is mentioned the exact same number of times here as Chicago (once) it represents freedom and escape – specifically, from the namesake of his previous state album, Michigan.
Indeed, much of “Chicago” is set back home where Stevens would sell his clothes for gas money to afford the southwesterly trips. Or the song sees Stevens on the interstate, “in a van with my friend.” He doesn’t even tell the listener what he does once reaching his destination, with the exception of one, lone youthful detail: sleeping in parking lots. Michigan’s opening tearjerker “Flint” also features a narrator who sleeps in his car, bur there’s a stark contrast between that song’s homeless, unemployed auto worker and the youthful jubilation and “freedom” Stevens feels when he’s roving the country and catching some shut-eye outside a Wal-Mart Superstore.
The music here pairs nicely with this attitude, as its uptempo drums and insistent high-pitched guitar licks add a sense of ceaseless inertia to he warm, melodramatic strings. Meanwhile, an exuberant church youth group provides backup vocals, elevating something as universal and commonplace as a road trip to a religious experience.
8. “I Want To Be Well” (from The Age Of Adz, 2010)
Stevens’ Christianity has always made him an outlier among the indie rock set, which generally treats Western religions with suspicion and mockery. it’s somewhat surprising then that Stevens’ most divisive album is not one of his holy epics but rather his most secular release. At issue throughout 2010’s The Age Of Adz is not his devotion to Jesus, however; it’s his devotion to cold, synthetic electronica.
Perhaps Stevens’ warbling tenor and heart-on-sleeve lyricism is simply better paired with organic, orchestral sounds than bleep-bloop cyborg squelches. Then again, the same trick worked like magic for Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service project. No, with all due respect to Stevens’ ambitions the problem with much of The Age Of Adz is not conceptual. It’s the execution. The good news is that the moments on The Age Of Adz that do work — like the insane fever dream pleas on “I Want To Be Well” — stand alongside Stevens’ best work.
You may know the story: At some point during the five years between Illinoise and The Age Of Adz, Stevens began to suffer from a mysterious but quite debilitating neurological illness. Simple activities like climbing stairs or sitting through a children’s film became Herculean efforts. The fact that doctors were mystified as to the cause of Stevens’ condition only made it that much more frustrating. Luckily, Stevens is by all accounts healthy today. But the disease left him with a well of inspiration from which much of The Age Of Adz’s lyrical content sprang, in particular “I Want To Be Well.”
Knowing a bit about Stevens’ background makes the lyrics that much more heartbreaking. But it doesn’t take a Stevens biographer to feel his pain when he screams, “I’m not fucking around” — at his illness, at the world, at God, and at himself. It does help to have heard the rest of Stevens’ catalog however because nowhere else has the man sounded so angry — but it is not an empowering sense of anger. This is a man who, despite his emphasis, is helpless to “be well.” And any doctor thinking that the illness is all in his head need only listen to “I Want To Be Well” to know that his suffering is all too real. And as for the broken machinery sounds that Stevens — perhaps unwisely — uses to surround this and every song on The Age Of Adz? Hell, Stevens could have played “I Want To Be Well” on a malfunctioning Tamagotchi, and that sense of helpless suffering would still be rendered as clearly and tragically to the listener.
7. “Seven Swans” (from Seven Swans, 2004)
Those who listened carefully to Greetings From Michigan were already aware that Stevens imbued much of his work with Christian narratives and imagery. That by itself is nothing shocking: Despite the strain of atheism — real or professed — that runs through the indie community and most modern youth movements for that matter, Stevens was always more of a lit-geek than an indie kid. And the history of American letters is rife with poets and authors — many of them nonbelievers — who lean on Biblical allusions to add a familiar but powerful sense of gravitas to their writings.
But with Seven Swans, Stevens’ stripped-down follow-up to Michigan, audiences discovered something about the songwriter that, while unconventional almost to the point of distraction among his peers, is key to understanding the themes of his work: Sufjan Stevens is a real, devout, bonafide Christian.
Fortunately, Stevens is the farthest thing from the gay-bashing, war-mongering, woman-hating, blastocyst-enthusiasts better known as Evangelicals (or, more accurately, the common stereotype of Evangelicals), whose favorite Commandment, after Thou Shalt Overturn Roe V. Wade, is Thou Shalt Not Make Rich People Pay Taxes On Capital Gains. Praise be to bipartisan culture wars.
Freed from the tyranny of tympanis and the burden of bassoons, Stevens lets his own voice and a single acoustic guitar do most the talking. The result is 12 simple yet elegant neo-folk hymns delivered with wide-eyed, big-hearted sincerity and an extraordinary sense of commitment as strong as a vise — the kind generally reserved for punk rockers and, well, religious zealots.
And that’s precisely what makes the record’s title track so striking and scary. To Stevens, hell is as real as Ypsilanti, sin — original or otherwise — is an impossibly serious matter, and the apocalypse is more than just the subject matter for Michael Bay films. Better get right with Jesus, because it could start raining fire and blood and amphibians any day now and you don’t want to be left behind.
The listener first encounters this frightening antagonist known as “God” about halfway through the eerie slow-burning song as Stevens sings, “He is the looooooooord” in a shaken and disturbing falsetto. Contrary to nearly every other song ever performed by Stevens, his voice here lacks the beautiful and aesthetically-pleasing qualities that help soften the psychological edges on some the artist’s most impossibly dark work — which “Seven Swans” clearly qualifies as. Instead Stevens’ unhinged outbursts of despair crack and shatter as the narrator warns, in a voice that mirrors the terrible carnage that God will bring upon this planet, “If you run… He will chase you… If you run.” Meanwhile, this awful, inevitable scene plays out atop an exceedingly clever chord progression that soundtracks the first “If you run” in an uneasy minor key before morphing, almost imperceptibly into a more comforting major key for the second “If you run.” And yet the progression never really resolves itself, instead chasing its own tail between sorrowful and sweet chords again and again, proving that no matter how hard one tries to escape the alternating wrath and mercy of God, the heathen is doomed to burn. And the result is the closest a nonbeliever can get to understanding the joy and terror of living life at the mercy of an all-powerful deity.
6. “Casimir Pulaski Day” (from Illinoise, 2005)
The two most mysterious and therefore most gossiped-about pieces of the Sufjan Stevens puzzle surround his sexuality and his Christianity. And so literary-minded Stevens fans hit the jackpot with “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which explores both of these notions, and does so with beautifully and instantly evocative nostalgia for Bible camps past while honoring the adolescent joys of swapping summer saliva.
Of all of Stevens’ songs, “Casimir Pulaski Day” has perhaps invited more debate, analysis, and unfounded comment section troll-gossip than any other. Of his religion and his sexuality. Stevens has been more forthright about the former, speaking candidly in interviews about how his piety had changed from that of a more traditional Christian into one of the vague pseudo-religious enumerations under the giant umbrella of “spirituality.”
Less is known for certain about Stevens’ sexuality, as his songs often feature narrators of indeterminate gender getting down with men and women alike. But the exhaustive conversation over these character traits rarely adds much to songs — and maybe even subtracts from them. Stevens lives in the abstract nearly as much as Joanna Newsom — his one contemporary equal when it comes to multi-instrumental performance art and poetry. And whether or not Stevens is “gay” or “still religious” has as little bearing on the listener’s ability to connect with these beautiful, striking song-traumas as the debate over whether Newsom had an abortion.
Here, Stevens doesn’t have much to say about the Polish Revolutionary War hero of the song’s namesake. Instead, he’s crafted an intimate elegy for a childhood friend who died of bone cancer that’s full of aching and longing that contrasts these feelings of intense grief with the bowled-over electric shock one receives the first time they touch another human in a clumsy yet undoubtedly sexual way. The result is one of the most honest and relatable songs about childhood ever written — by Stevens or anyone else — and the rare artistic reflection about kids and “growing up” that never feels precious or pandering.
5. “Impossible Soul” (from The Age Of Adz, 2010)
At 25:35, “Impossible Soul” is by far the longest song in Stevens’ repertoire. (For perspective, his second-longest song, Enjoy Your Rabbit’s “Year Of The Horse,” clocks in at a trim 15 minutes). As the cluttered and capricious closing track to the equally cluttered and capricious Age Of Adz, few would deny that “Impossible Soul” contains some of the most breathtaking, show-stopping moments on this or any Stevens album.
But is it really necessary that “Impossible Soul” be 25 minutes? Wouldn’t 15 minutes, or even eight minutes, do the trick?
While “Impossible Soul” is divided into individual parts — each of which could stand on their own as phenomenal songs — part of what makes the track so necessarily long are the transitions between them, which are calculatedly organic, elongated, and non-abrupt. The song morphs in tempo, mood, and instrumentation almost imperceptibly so that it’s hard to tell that the song has changed course until it already bears zero resemblance to the movement that came before it. I doubt the song would have the same impact if it were even five seconds shorter.
That’s also because the song’s narrative arc — from diseased despair to uneasy optimism to the final exuberant celebration of having cured himself through sound and vision, with a big assist from a lover willing to put up with his “impossible soul” — is one that demands an enormous amount of time and space to feel convincing to the listener. The fact that Stevens pulls it off without a single musical or emotional note that rings false is nothing short of extraordinary.
After a lifetime of abandonment, Stevens only wants his mother’s love — a “perfect love.” But to Carrie, that’s simply asking too much and Stevens is being selfish. And maybe his mother’s right – she’s the one who’s dying and therefore needs his help much more than he needs hers. But Stevens doesn’t see it that way. “I know it’s small,” he says, sarcastically referring to a son’s plea for his mother’s affection.
Sarcasm quickly gives way to acceptance, as Stevens sings, “Seems I got it wrong/ I was chasing after something that was gone.” But as sad as that realization is, it offers a psychological opening for Stevens to cure his mind and body. All it took was this act of putting something behind him; of moving forward.
From that point onward, the song is all suspense and slowly rising action, as musical themes and lyrical ideas bleed through each transition between movements to create a multi-segmented symphony that flows as seamlessly as a Beethoven epic. As the suspense builds, the album’s manic electronic flourishes — which up to this point sounded cold and alienating — begin to slowly coalesce around a chest-pumping four-on-the-floor rhythm that wouldn’t sound out of place on an LCD Soundsystem record. Meanwhile, a chorus of Stevens’ sing-speak lines like “No I don’t want to feel pain” — but unlike the desperation found in similar cries of anguish on tracks like “I Want To Be Well,” there’s a sense of strength and determination in his delivery here, suggesting that what Stevens feels is no longer merely a desire to feel well, but a battle cry — shouted with the certainty of a cheerleader chant.
Slowly but surely, Stevens’ confidence continues to expand and intensify, along with the music which begins to sound like a bloody clash between the forces of noisy chaos and those of anthemic triumph until it finally reaches a critical mass of tension and a new mantra takes over: “Hold on Suf, hold on Suf…” And then finally, in one of the most earned moments within the artist’s entire repertoire, the beat drops out, and the chorus screams, “One! Two! Three! Four!”
From then on it’s pure musical and lyrical jubilation:
“It’s a long life/ Better pinch yourself/ Put your face together/ Better get it right/ It’s a long life/ Better hit yourself/ Put your face together / Better stand up straight”
In any other context, this finale would risk sounding like Chumbawumba-grade poptimism. But by first setting listeners up, casting them into darkness, and then inviting them to take a sledgehammer to Stevens’ heart and to view its contents, audiences can’t help but trust this moment of balls-out sincerity. This is what makes Stevens among the most deserving heirs to David Foster Wallace’s New Sincerity movement. In order to earn this sincerity, it takes more than simply opening your eyes real wide and casting out all your cynicism. No, it only works when artists show us the darkness first. Because while anyone can be happy, it demands a special kind of strength to stare death and addiction in the face, to lift the veil on the shittiness that regularly seeps into our lives, to lose everything, and then to still find a reason to trust, help, love — and dance with — the rest of the human race.
4. “Death With Dignity” (from Carrie & Lowell, 2015)
The audience witnesses something extraordinary happen on the first track off Carrie & Lowell, the album-length elegy for Sufjan Stevens’ mother who passed away in 2012. At first, Stevens is afraid to face his feelings over one of the most traumatic yet universal tragedies that can befall a person: the death of a parent.
“Spirit of my silence, I can hear you/ But I’m afraid to be near you/ And I don’t know where to begin.”
It’s a powerful line, evocative of a sentiment that’s familiar to those of us who have experienced great loss. It makes sense that Stevens is afraid to be left alone with his own thoughts, which will invariably gather around memories of his mother. Paradoxically, he’s also afraid of what will happen if he keeps these thoughts to himself — where, repressed in his brain, they’re sure to wreak havoc on his soul. For Stevens, the creation of Carrie & Lowell is more than a creative exercise or a gift to fans or even an act of catharsis. It’s an emotional imperative and all the artist can do to keep his heart from breaking in two.
Which is no easy task: Stevens doesn’t know “where to begin” and even if he did he’s “afraid to be near” these memories, let alone mold them into popular art. While he explores this uncertainty, the listener is treated to one of Stevens’ impeccably crafted yet inescapably catchy vocal melodies. When he does finally change up the melody, the abruptness allows for great dramatic potential, which Stevens uses here to emphasize lines like “I’ve lost my strength completely” — words that fly up the scale into the heavens on the back of his exquisitely trembling falsetto as if retreating from some unspeakable horror.
As for the “extraordinary” event? It’s the act of Stevens rediscovering over the course of “Death with Dignity”’s four minutes his lost strength — something he’ll certainly need if he expects to make it through 10 more songs of painful introspection and remembrance. This strength lies in the hope that Stevens will be reunited with his mother in death, in the same way her disease brought him back into her life after the many absent years she spent plagued by schizophrenia and substance abuse. (A perfect mother, Carrie was not.) It’s the kind of silver lining we can expect from Stevens, whose optimism here and elsewhere is less a happy-go-lucky source of inspiration and more a mechanism for coping with so much darkness.
So finally, after repeating, “Every road leads to an end” with a mix of resignation and longing, Stevens courageously braces himself to deal with his mother’s death. And in that climactic moment, the vocal melody revisits the beautifully haunting falsetto lift from before, only here Stevens sings, “Your apparition passes through me” — holding out the “through” in harmony with himself and mimicking the sound that his mother’s ghost makes as it threatens to knock him off his feet.
We understand now why Stevens is so afraid of her. In life and in death, his mother’s a force of nature – a hurricane wind that might just blow him away. We’re blown away too, Sufjan.
3. “Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid)” (from Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, 2003)
Unless your last name is Buffett or you belong to some other corporate or political dynasty, you’ve probably felt poor at some point in your life. Maybe it was on Christmas morning the year your dad lost his job, when there were far fewer gifts below the tree than ever before. Or maybe it was when you saw a note from your mom who was working late advising you to “make dinner” — only to open the fridge to find a jar of mustard and a loaf of moldy bread. And I’m sure many of us felt poor upon leaving college, without a job at the precise moment we were expected to have one, making the sad walk to Kroger with a pocketful of change that you’d hoped would be enough to buy ramen and beer. (If not, you could happily survive without the ramen.)
But none of that compares to the desperation and despair of the poverty documented by Stevens on “Flint,” the first track off of Greetings From Michigan. Greetings, indeed.
Here we have a man whose life is dominated so completely and definitively by failure that when he tries to bring tears to his eyes he can’t even do that right — so he pretends. The song only has a few dozens words in it and, even then, most of them are repeated over and over again — like a mantra except that the more you say it the more it stresses you out. And so we don’t know a ton about the protagonist. He lost his job. He lost his room. He’s living in his car. How and why, you ask? I don’t know, pick up a newspaper. Americans used to get paid to make things, now they don’t. And neither Donald Drumpf nor Bernie Sanders is going to bring those jobs back — though I seriously doubt Stevens’ narrator from 2003 is going to live that long.
The narrator of “Flint” says it’d be all right to “die alone.” Because once you’ve lost your home and your dignity, dying alone is the least of your worries and something that happens to most people anyway and really who is going to fall in love with him in this state of affairs? “Used my hands to use my heart,” Stevens sings. In other more RuPaul-esque words, it’s hard to fall in love if you don’t love yourself; and it’s hard to love yourself if you’re destitute.
On “Flint,” Stevens leaves his marching band at home. In its stead, there’s only a slow, simple piano riff and, later, a chorus of sad trombones. It’s a hell of a way to kick off an album, but when documenting the utter squalor of life in the Rust Belt, anything else would be disingenuous.
So keep on crying about your ex or your dead grandmother. Sufjan will be here sitting in his car, trying to think if his life is still worth crying over. Chances are, you’ve never felt that poor — unless you live in Flint or Cleveland or Gary, IN or… okay, never mind you probably have felt that poor.
2. “For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti” (from Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, 2003)
Before Mumford And Sons ruined the banjo for every musician on the planet, artists like Sufjan Stevens made incredible songs with them, and this is one of the best.
And to complement those plaintive banjo strums, the third track off of Michigan, “Widows In Paradise” features some of Stevens’ most direct and powerful lyrics. Yes, there’s some thinly-veiled religious subtext here. But as with most of his work from before he came out as a Christian on Seven Swans, these themes and images are subtle and secondary to the simple, devastating emotional equation that lies at the song’s core — which is that when fathers and husbands die, their widows and fatherless children face a nearly unbearable sense of astoundingly painful loss.
This is a universal tragedy, of course. But from the title and the context of the rest of the album, we can assume that the victims of these deaths are the jobless men of Michigan’s crumbling manufacturing centers, as the cycles of unemployment, depression, addiction, and suicide keep spinning pointlessly while Congress dismantles the social safety net and de-regulates/de-taxes the wealthy so they can upgrade their super-yachts. And while this has become one of the dominant narratives in the 2016 election season, in 2003 — which feels like centuries ago — everyone was too outraged (or bloodthirstily patriotic) over the Iraq War to notice that the fathers of Ypsilanti are struggling to keep the lights on.
But while this context is important, Stevens isn’t out to enlighten or surprise. His aim is to vividly capture the utter devastation of unspeakable tragedies. And on this count, he succeeds with brutal efficiency.
“Widows In Paradise” is shorter and comprised of fewer building blocks than almost any other track on Michigan or Illinois, but each one is an emotional barnburner. There’s the cavernous echo of multiple reverb tracks on the minor-key banjo progression. The simple but hauntingly unshakeable vocal line that repeats through verse and chorus alike with minimal melodic or rhythmic shifts but increasingly pronounced variations in harmony and intensity. And the icily pristine production which, during the instrumental bridge places clearly discernible space between French horn, piano, and wordless vocals as they mimic one another, together yet alone. each sparse element is perfectly-calibrated to strike the listener square in the heart and to leave behind a palpably empty hole which we yearn to fill — even if our fathers are just down the hall or a phone call away. (I’m definitely calling my dad after writing this entry).
The song is anchored by a refrain of Stevens singing “I’ll do anything for you.” Taken in the most literal sense possible, the speaker of this line is interpreted to be Stevens himself, overwhelmingly affected by these losses and desperately trying to do something, anything — and later, everything — to ease the impossibly horrific torture of loneliness and loss felt by those left behind by their lovers, soul-mates, and caretakers. By the end, Stevens’ timorous warble crescendos into an awful, hopeless wail as he cries out, “I did everything for you” eight times — each one more impossibly forlorn than before. The implication, based on Stevens’ use of the past-tense as well as the supremely distraught delivery, is that everything wasn’t enough — certainly not to bring these men back, and perhaps not even to brighten the corners ever so slightly of these women’s and children’s dark worlds for the briefest of moments.
But an alternative take — one that is in some ways more powerful and optimistic than the first — is that the narrators are the “Widows In Paradise” themselves who are dealing with the unimaginable dual struggle of mourning their husbands and taking care of their mourning children alone. This is more in line with Stevens’ own thinking about the song, which he revealed to audiences at a 2004 concert in Belgium:
I noticed when we went up there (to Paradise, MI) to play a football tournament in high school, I noticed that there was all these single mothers and women and grandmothers but there weren’t any men, and so I had sort of devised a story in my mind that they had all died in the war and that they were all widows. But they were really a very happy and optimistic community and they all seemed to be working together, and it was, like, women of the world take over. This is for the widows in Paradise.
A lot of artists can write a “sad” song in which the narratives and imageries constitute a never-ending sea of despair. But it takes a true luminary like Stevens to conjure a similarly dismal scene, but also find a light — however dim — amid the otherwise-total darkness. And while one might think that would alleviate to some degree a song’s capacity for tragedy, in this case the opposite may be true — because the darkness looks even blacker when placed next to the light.
1. “Come On! Feel The Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandberg Visits Me In A Dream)” (from Illinoise, 2005)
AKA: The One About the Chicago World’s Fair
An audible grown was heard from the gallery of ornery indie punks when the sensitive Brooklyn countertenor revealed he had nothing more profound to sing about than Ferris Wheels and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Yeah, it makes them sick: this precious, phony, affected intellectualism that’s become de rigueur thanks to guys like Colin Meloy and SOOF-john Stevens. It has no place –- no place, they insist –- in a genre that owes its existence to punk rock’s serious, stone-faced political conscience.
Hey, I can sympathize with the anti-Sufjan contingent. I can also sympathize with jobless, uneducated holler-dwellers who support Donald Drumpf. But to be frank, both of those groups don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.
I’ll get to why Stevens is singing about much more than circular turn-of-the-century death traps and the January model in Ayn Rand’s Calendar Of Hunky Architects.
But first, the music:
“Come On! Feel the Illinoise” is a dizzying and thrilling composition that should surprise and delight just about any set of ears on the planet — that is, as long as the head in between them doesn’t make categorically negative assumptions about songs with slightly odd time signatures or that exceed a two-woodwind maximum. The complaint over wonky time signatures is a common one leveled against Stevens. But unlike the purveyors of the oxymoronic “math rock” genre, who experiment with time signatures out of a tendency to mistake “weirdness” for “innovation,” on “Illinoise” Stevens makes 5/4 sound as natural and comfortable as “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” The psychic interplay between notes and rhythm here is so graceful that the listener barely realizes that with every measure and every extra quarter note, Stevens is slowly dialing up the tension. Or rather, we don’t realize it until Stevens — directing a mad acid-tripping marching band’s worth of sound with the precision of a brain surgeon — releases this tension at the 2:20 mark on the last key-changing syllable of “Columbiaaaa,” shifting dramatically to the more populist and crowd-pleasing 4/4 signature with a series of enormous staccato orchestra hits. It’s a glorious, show-stopping moment in a song full of them.
All I can say to Stevens naysayers is that it must take real effort to resist these moments of sheer excitement and delight, which are stitched together over seven minutes that pass by all too quickly. And coincidentally, if you look past the turn-of-the-century cheerleading of “Illinoise” and consider its subtext, you’ll find Stevens makes a very similar argument in the lyrics.
While Stevens may sound on first listen like an over-sugared society child begging his father to let him ride the Ferris Wheel one more time, a closer look reveals the rather grim implication that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, like all spectacles, was merely a silly distraction from the death and pain of human existence. Anyone who knows the story told in Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City — and Stevens surely does — understands that outside the park’s gates the joyous innovation of the expo gave way to the harsh realities of American urban life at the turn of the century. These atrocities included a serial killer who tortured to death an estimated 200 women without drawing an ounce of attention from authorities, who were too busy making sure rich investors weren’t disappointed with the festivities to notice.
Still, Stevens also knows that whenever the brief window of history we’re granted in our lifetimes offers a view of events that capture the fascination of a nation, it’s damned hard not to get caught up in the thrill of it all. Sure, it’s all a corporate, consumerist nightmare. But there’s something hilariously American about the nation’s insistence that the Ferris Wheel unveiled in Chicago that year was equally majestic as the crowning achievement of the previous World’s Fair in Paris: a little-known structure called the Eiffel Fucking Tower. Even more hilarious is the notion that advents like Cream Of Wheat and soft drinks, also unveiled with great aplomb and significance to fair-goers, represented the finest innovations this great nation had to offer. “When the ads come,” Stevens sings, he is just as susceptible to the allure of modern conveniences, despite “great intentions.”
But while Stevens doesn’t deny himself the amusement felt by the masses, he is still left feeling restless by the experience. Ultimately, these creature comforts can’t satisfy his aching spirit, no matter how spectacular the ad men make them out to be. As Peggy Lee put it, in a refrain that would come to define America in the 20th century, “Is that all there is?”
That’s the question explored by Part II of “Illinoise,” which is made up of much more substantial stuff than instant gruel and Coca-Cola. It recounts how one night, after poor Stevens has cried himself to sleep, the ghost of Illinois’ poet laureate, Carl Sandberg, arrives in a dream to chastise Stevens for his impressionability and naiveté. “What are you doing,” Sandberg’s metafictional ectoplasmic phantom seems to ask, “celebrating some lame, commercialized fair and getting all weepy and nostalgic over turn-of-the-century America?” He’s got a point: The fair didn’t hearken some miracle age of invention, nor did the 1900s mark the birth of a brave new world of compassion and love. By that time, humanity had already seen “a thousand centuries of death,” Stevens sings. And if the 20th century is any indication, there’s going to be a thousand more — if we can even last a tenth that long.
Stevens didn’t exactly take Sandberg’s advice; otherwise we wouldn’t be listening to a song subtitled “The World’s Columbian Exposition.” And I suspect the reason is this: If all that lies beyond the spectacle is death, then what’s the point? Why not enjoy the spectacle? At least the people who died on the Titanic got a hell of a view before they perished.
“Illinoise” concludes not with some inspiring sermon or thoughtful rumination on what this terrible wheel of human suffering means, but with a question: “Are you writing from the heart?” Stevens leaves this question unanswered, in part because the question is directed toward himself. But Stevens also poses it to the listener, as a sort of litmus test for whether we’re living life to the fullest.
I know, I know… “Write It From The Heart” sounds like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation from the ’90s starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman as her troubled stepdaughter. Empty platitudes like “follow your heart” or “be true to yourself” are as dull and lacking in profundity as they are obvious and clichéd, and maybe we should expect more from Stevens. But they also contain a harsh truth: which is that after millennia spent grappling with the morbid inevitabilities of this world through religion or philosophy or sex or money or drugs or all of the above, humanity’s learned that empty “Chicken Soup For The Soul” platitudes are about as sound a prescription as Stevens or anyone else can offer for treating this sickness known as the human condition.
“Is that all there is?” Afraid so. Now eat your Cream Of Wheat.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.