Sufjan Stevens

TrackAlbum / EP
Rhythm Of DevotionSisyphus
ChicagoIllinois
The Child With The Star On His HeadSilver & Gold
The Owl And The TanagerAll Delighted People
To Be Alone With YouSeven Swans
Oh God, Where Are You Now
(In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)
Michigan
The Seer's TowerIllinois
Too MuchThe Age Of Adz
The Only ThingCarrie & Lowell
Impossible SoulThe Age Of Adz

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Contributor: Jack Burnett

Sufjan Stevens is a prodigy. No two ways about it. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan with his six siblings he didn’t learn to read or write until the age of nine, crediting it to understimulation. He very much had a non nuclear family life spending his childhood with his father Rasjid and stepmother, occasionally seeing his mother Carrie on holidays to Oregon and her husband Lowell Brams (who would later become the founder of Sufjan’s record label, Asthmatic Kitty). He has an extensive, diverse and almost unimaginable musical career as a solo artist spanning fifteen years and eleven full albums. Although he is mainly considered a folk artist that didn’t stop him dabbling in classic rock, electronica, hip hop, classical, electro pop, ambience, orchestration and even hymn writing.

What makes his music stand out, to me, is the infinite range of raw feeling and emotion his music drags you into. Invoked sympathy from the audience is what most of his popular, and some of his best songs, revolve around, creating a story of a character stripped of something or someone they want and love and having to handle that pressure. Listen to To Be Alone With You, The Owl And The Tanager, Futile Devices and (in my opinion most powerfully) Casimir Pulaski Day to see this effect. He can also evoke rage with stories of John Wayne Gacy Jr, the Illinois born serial rapist and killer, or with the biblical character of Emmanuel ripping brother from brother in The Seer’s Tower. But the real talent lays in the far apart tales of happiness, usually evoking childhood memories like that of the holiday in the song Decatur or the almost heavenly portrayal of Holland, Michigan. This mix of emotion hits you, one after the other, making his albums masterfully formed and keeping you gripped thoughout by tearing your heart out with slow strong ballads and then handing it back to you in gourmet portions of cheery orchestrated major melodies.

Perhaps, however, one of Sufjan’s best qualities is not his own work, but how he weaves himself with others to make something incredible. He covers many undoubted legends. Prince’s Alphabet Street, Joni Mitchell’s Free Man In Paris and even works together a nine minute supersong cover of Whitney Houston’s christmas song: Do You Hear What I Hear. Even disincluding covers, his projects with others are amazing. Rap supergroup Sisyphus, record day split 7” with Rosie Thomas, playing with and in The National, collaborating with St. Vincent, the list goes on. In any song he has a part in though, there are tell-tale signs of his writing; 4/4 sleigh bells, ominous choirs in slow but uplifting chords and his own often harrowing, ghostly vocals set him apart from any other artist. Having such a distinct sound is another thing setting him apart, and his ultimate recognisability, even through all the genres he swims in, is an incredibly sought after quality by many people that Stevens pulls off almost effortlessly.

Choosing ten tracks to illustrate all the sides of this man was impossible, so I had to do my best. Some of his most recognised tracks are on here, as well as some alternate versions and also some often overlooked album tracks. Unfortunately, I did not have space for the charmingly traditional and yet through-and-through space age record Year Of Our Lord from Enjoy Your Rabbit, or the wonderfully and expertly crafted soundtrack for The BQE. The Avalanche, A Sun Came, Run Rabbit Run and all but one of the ten volumes of Songs For Christmas were also unfortunately excluded (you’ll find one or two extra tracks on the spotify playlist … Ed). I think, however, I did capture quite a widespread, fair observation. From here on, there is an analysis of each track and what makes it, and him, brilliant.

Track one may at first mislead you. It is by Sisyphus, a collaboration between Stevens, esteemed and talented producer and musician Son Lux, and generally untouchable Brooklyn rapper, Serengeti. It was noted in an interview that the three “shared almost no common interests aside from their music and the record was made over a hard three weeks with lots of red wine”. This huge electro rap anthem tells of a devoted husband and the catchy, changing rhythms combined with the infection melodies drag you in and let the dazzlingly repetitive lyrics sink through you. The song slowly builds (keeping that infectious three chord melody throughout) and by the end we are hit with huge synthesised orchestras with a screaming Serengeti with Sufjan’s vocals over the top asking us whether we can hear the Rhythm Of Devotion, to which surely the answer can be only yes.

The second track may be in my personal top three. One of his most well-known and perfectly formed songs, Chicago is a masterpiece. Immediately starting with us being told of how he has fallen in love again and that all things go, this tale of inevitable change and the short straw often drawn with that, gives us an amazing combination of so many instruments all in harmony. The song brings us into a positive state of mind by telling us of the place he has fallen in love with but then after another chorus and brilliant brass solo section breaks down into possibly my favourite lyric of his of all time:

If I was crying / In the van with my friend / It was for freedom / From myself and from the land / I’ve made a lot of mistakes (x4)

We learn of his hard times, the unforgivingly personal story of him at an ultimate low, with the acknowledgement of himself being at fault. Followed after by the line all things grow, we see ultimately it is a song about moving on. The intense lyrics and omnipresent instrumentation leaves you wanting to listen again and the chorus at the end fades the song out perfectly. Its is Stevens at his best and it is undoubtedly a perfectly made song.

The third track is The Child With The Star On his Head. This is one of his famously long tacks and in comparison to others, this clocks in at a mediocre fifteen minutes. As I have included another long song, I’ve linked to a shorter live version here. This is the only christmas song on this list. It’s impossible to have an inclusive list without featuring at least one as he has released one hundred seasonal songs over ten CDs based only on that December holiday. This epic relates the birth of Christ and uses the baby as a metaphor for the trust we put in modern inventions. I chose this one as it highlights his ability to take a subject and turn it inside out and invoke you to see something completely differently. It is unlike any christmas song you will have ever heard and the lyrics are simply beautiful.

Lyric-wise, my all-time favourite has to be The Owl And The Tanager. A slow piano ballad incorporating only voice, echo, deep tempo keeping broken chords and occasional melody for most of the song, we are told of Sufjan being betrayed and the metaphors used here cannot even be described with real words:

All I was wrong, Trembling in the cage / I was diamonds in the cage
In seven hours I consider death / And your Father comes to yell at me / You little boy

The plosive sounds littered through the song keep us focused on the tragedy, and the ultimate helplessness, described again and again, gives us a real sense of his ability. He tells us he is bleeding in spite of his love for you. He tells us of how he’s the ugliest prey, tells us of how he was betrayed, how they said they’d wait for him down by Tannery Creek, a place sewn into the couple’s love history. He tells us of how after the betrayal, he punches the person in the head, and they only laughed, and laughed and laughed. The impeccable writing combined with the gothic reverb and simple but ultimately intricate structure leaves me breathless each time I hear it.

This next track is probably the most famous. Taken from the Seven Swans album, To Be Alone With You is a wonder. All you can really do is listen. It demonstrates the raw talent Sufjan has for writing simple guitar love songs:

I’d swim across Lake Michigan / I’d sell my shoes / I’d give my body to be back again / In the rest of the room / To be alone with you
You gave your body to the lonely / They took your clothes / You gave up a wife and a family / You gave your ghost / To be alone with me

The story tells us that these lovers go through impossible feats to be with each other. Losing control of your own body, losing your family, even losing your own spirit. He is making us ask, how much of ourselves can we lose for someone else before it’s gone too far?

The longest title on this list, and on the Michigan album, Oh God, Where Are You Now (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?) is still short of being his longest track name by 213 characters, beaten by the winner, ‘The Black Hawk War, or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself In The Morning, or, We Apologize For The Inconvenience But You’re Going To Have To Leave Now, or, I Have Fought The Big Knives And Will Continue To Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!’ Oh God, Where Are You Now can not be reduced to joking though, as it is as sombre as they get. The narrator asks God where he is, in a way begging him to let him know as “There is nobody else who can raise the dead”. This song really taps into Sufjan’s religious side; many of his songs address bible verses or stories but this one is addressing God himself. It is a song that slows down time in its playing and could bring a tear to the eye of any person hearing it. The graceful symbols that fade the brass in, the harmonic, heart-wrenching vocal symphony, the interlocking melodies, this song just has so many perfect elements and although it is much more low key than many others, it is showing a deep deep part of Sufjan Stevens that many songs simply can’t show.

Possibly the most brutally overlooked track on the Illinois album, possibly because of its situation nineteen tracks in, The Seer’s Tower is another slow, powerful track that holds you long after it finishes playing. The otherworldly vocals between verses give you reason to listen. It is another biblical song, this one linking The Tower Of Babel, and the story of Emmanuel: 34. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35. For I have come to a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. It is a tale of a cruel owner and the helplessness of our narrator looking out to a seven mile view watching the coming apocalypse. Although a small detail, after the final lyric, the most endearing part of this song has to be the soft melodies we hear being sung at the end. Stevens harmonises with himself as softly as anyone could and on its own, just the breath you hear him take at the end, is as powerful as the rest of the song put together.

Very much a mood changer in this list, Too Much is the second track from the monster that is The Age Of Adz. To start we hear many intricate electronic sounds, most likely created in the writers six month period of total seclusion in which he worked on sounds with no real direction. Then the story of Royal Robertson, a mentally ill sign maker living in 1960s USA manifested itself into the sounds and thus The Age of Adz, named after artwork by Robertson, was created. Self proclaimed Prophet Royal Robertson was a sufferer of seizures and schizophrenia. He began to draw what he saw in his seizures and visions, wielding images of apocalyptic futures of great monsters destroying the earth in waves of fire. His art was very low budget, usually done on paper with felt tip pens, glitter and sometimes acrylic paint and littered the walls of his house. The chaos descried in Robertson’s future shows through in Too Much, which throws around so many sounds that it takes many listens to take them all in. Chaos is very much a theme of Too Much, and of The Age Of Adz and the repetition of “There’s too much riding on that” almost let’s us hear Stevens pleading to us, or to himself, about his spiralling uncontrollability. The intricacy and brilliance of this song is matched elsewhere on the album, mostly by the next track, the title track, where heavy brass and huge orchestral sounds bombard speakers.

Although I have only heard this next track a few times, it grabbed me instantly. The Only Thing (see clip below), taken from the 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, is simple sounding in comparison to Too Much, but is crafted from complicated riffs and melodies. Some very dark images are juxtaposed with very light ones and the painfully personal memories show us yet another side of him. It is a beautiful song and the themes of self harming in an attempt to save another is a deep, poetic message that strikes hard on this very dark album.

Finishing off this toppermost is a simply perfect track, Impossible Soul. Scrolling through posts tagged with Impossible Soul on tumblr or any other social network is all we need to do to hear its praise. “This song is a journey, good luck on your way”,”A twenty five minute Stevens song is better than most artists entire discographies”,”This song is my heart and my soul”,”Sometimes his lyrics just f*cking kill me”, it goes on endlessly. The song is so intricate, so well put together, that me alone attempting to describe it wouldn’t do it justice. So instead here’s a short quote from Sufjan Stevens himself on Impossible Soul:

“It’s like a Woody Allen film, you know, where there’s the slapstick on the surface that everyone can appreciate, but then, deeper, there’s all these original details. Maybe at the heart of a good Woody Allen film there’s some kind of universal tragedy of humanity that he’s speaking about; a much bigger thing. Impossible Soul is really about a very primitive object. I want to get with a girl, and there’s all these obstacles, and shortcomings, and miscommunication … and this is a basic fundamental of life, between two human beings. But then very quickly – through an expository detour – it becomes something else. It’s all about personal happiness, or the state of mankind, or the cosmos – the cosmos is drawn into it. And then it becomes about … what is at the heart of our inability to really connect? Is it fear, or is it self-consciousness? And then it becomes a kind of therapeutic discourse that becomes the centerpiece of the song. But it’s no longer about, just like, “girl, I want to get with you”. It’s more like … what’s wrong with civilization.”

 

 

Sufjan Stevens official website

Asthmatic Kitty Records

“The Only Thing” from Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens biography (iTunes)

Jack Burnett is 16 and in his last year of GCSEs. Next year he’ll be taking Maths, English, Economics and Art at A-level. He enjoys music and art a lot and he draws a bunch.

(We think Jack is our youngest contributor to date and he has written a superb toppermost. He says he’s really bad at talking about himself which we applaud, but he can sure write a bunch! … Ed.)

TopperPost #427

21 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Mar 28, 2015

    This is such a great piece on Sufjan Stevens. When Illinois followed Michigan, it was suggested he intended to go on and do the other 48 states! He must have thought about a whole album dedicated to South Dakota, and then having to start on a whole album dedicated to North Dakota and reconsidered. Having flown over them looking out of the window I can see it would be daunting. I got the box of Christmas EPs which are wonderful. I particularly like That Was The Worst Christmas Ever. I didn’t like the Age of Adz but am motivated to try again. I will buy Carrie & Lowell on Monday.

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      Aw thankyou ! I was a fan after he announced that project being a joke so i missed out there, and I have the christmas EPs too! I wonder if we have the same set!

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 29, 2015

    Jack, thanks for this great piece and look forward to more…

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      Thanks Andrew!

  3. Terry Newman
    Mar 29, 2015

    Thanks Jack, a great piece of writing. I’ve never been a great fan of Sufjan Stevens but your piece has made me want to investigate further, which is what it’s all about.

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      Yeah totally ! Getting new people into his music seems to be something i do a lot…

  4. Paul Dolan
    Mar 29, 2015

    Sufjan is someone I’ve overlooked but with the help of this excellent piece and spotify I’m currently attempting to put this right

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      Good luck!

  5. Helen Newman
    Mar 29, 2015

    Thanks so much for this Jack. An excellent and passionate piece of writing. I am very new to Sufjan’s music. Loved the LP Illinois and especially the track you highlight, Chicago. So very touching. I am further encouraged to listen to much more. It’s quite rare to read reviews and feel the writer is actually putting a bit of themselves into the piece and not just stating the facts. Thanks again for such a personal piece.
    PS: He certainly can write a bunch!

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      Thanks Helen 🙂 Good luck listening and I’m sure you’ll get into it!

  6. Lisa Rodrigues
    Mar 29, 2015

    I loved this, and especially by a 16 year old. Wow!!! I’m 59 1/2 and not nearly so eloquent. We will see the wonderful Sufjan at his only UK gig this year in early September. I still remember The Age Of Adz concert as one of the most stunning performances ever – 2 3/4 hours of emotional rollercoastering and non-stop visual and musical genius. Thank you for your beautifully curated list. I will be listening to them in that order this evening. Keep writing please!!!

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      I feel so awful for never having been to an Age of Adz gig, it’s tragic really. I’m glad you liked the list though!!

  7. Matthew Savine
    Mar 29, 2015

    A really well written piece Jack about an artist I’ve heard a great deal about but never investigated. Listened to the playlist as I was reading – diverse & interesting stuff that I shall look into further. Thank you for pointing me in his direction.

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      You’re welcome! I definitely tried to include something everyone could listen to if you know what I mean?

  8. Mike Convery
    Mar 29, 2015

    Wow, what a review of one the best songwriters / performers out there. I was lucky to catch Sufjan Stevens live when he toured the Age of Adz album and he blew me away. Carrie and Lowell will certainly be on my shopping list this week. I would advise anyone to catch him live next time he comes to these shores.

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      Wow I am so jealous. The Age of Adz tour is something I regretfully missed and yea if he ever comes here I will basically force everyone I know to go see him.

  9. David Lewis
    Mar 29, 2015

    Congratulations on the article! You may have a career in writing there, if you decide to stick with it. Meanwhile, I’m off to listen to this marvellous artist yet again…

    • Jack Burnett
      Mar 30, 2015

      Thank you! I really appreciate it!

  10. Peter Viney
    Mar 30, 2015

    ‘Carrie & Lowell” got its UK release today. It’s been playing all day and is remarkably consistent in its tone and mood. Exquisite is the first word to come to mind. Reviews are picking out “Fourth of July” as the track to try (the fourth of July … we’re all gonna die), and I can see why. However, “The Only Thing” selected above rivals it. “Should Have Known Better” is the other reviewer’s choice.

  11. Stephen Lawrence
    Apr 4, 2015

    What a fantastic piece of writing Jack. I read this with “Carrie & Lowell” playing in my headphones (a stunningly beautiful album on first listen), there are a lot of gaps in my Sufjan Stevens collection – thanks to you I’ll be filling in the holes. I hope you can take the time out to cast your pen on some more artists soon, it’ll be appreciated by many here I’m sure.

    • Jack Burnett
      Apr 4, 2015

      Good luck listening! He does have a very varied and complex series of albums so it can be tough to listen to all of it. But totally worth it

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