Lately, I’ve begun to grow tired of him and have explored other musicians more, but any self-respecting MP3 blogger would include at least a few posts about Sufjan Stevens. Don’t get me wrong. I love my good old friend Sufjan and all that he touches. He’s amazing and incredibly creative musically and lyrically. But I’ve moved lately into a post-Sufjan stage in my musical life. It’s a new stage, full of wonder and excitement, but I’ll always be grateful for the doors that Sufjan opened to me. Sounds like a cheesy line from an ’80s movie.
If you’ve been living in a cave, third world nation, or Illinois (ooh, slam), you may not have heard of Sufjan, so I’ll give you a little background. Many people have compared him to Bob Dylan or The Beatles in terms of musical and lyrical genius. His songs, often hard to understand (like Paul’s epistles), are full of poetic imagery, metaphors, and stories of real people in real places. His music is an eclectic mix of folk, orchestral, bluegrass, and acoustic music, with jazz elements thrown in just for fun. I’m not sure what makes him so great. His voice is pretty bland. The music is usually overly mellow. He plays the banjo like a guitar. He throws in strange instruments and weird beats. Maybe just the fact that he’s not doing things like the books say you “have” to do them. He’s being different, creative, new. And that’s garnering a lot of acclaim, in both Christian and secular circles.
Sufjan Stevens began two great recording ventures a few years ago. In 2003, with the recording of Greetings from Michigan, he proclaimed that he would record an album for each of the 50 states in the US. He followed up shortly with Come on Feel the Illinoise and now only needs to do 48 more albums. That was his first great venture. And the second? To record the world’s largest set of Christmas albums. Last year, Stevens released a 5-CD set of Christmas songs (some traditional songs and some originals) he’d recorded each year since 2001 (skipping 2004). Will he release another Christmas album this year? I would think so, but only time will tell.
Here’s a fun, but long, excerpt from his bio on Asthmatic Kitty Records:
Sufjan Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in the chilly upper reaches of the Lower Peninsula. A self-taught musician, the young Sufjan pounded out elaborate Mozartian sonatas on a toy Casio, and by college became proficient on the oboe, recorder, banjo, guitar, vibraphone, bass, drums, piano, and other instruments too numerous to mention. Somewhere along the line he also started to sing, though at the time his friends didn’t encourage it. He bought a 4-track tape cassette recorder and painstakingly composed 90-minute concept albums for The Nine Planets, The 12 Apostles, and The Four Humors. He read William Blake, William Wordsworth, and William Faulkner. At that time, in college, the world loomed large and daunting, and Sufjan’s music came to sound like a medieval woodwind ensemble waving swords and torches at the twelve-headed dragon of death. During his last semester in college, Sufjan pruned, picked, and assembled a selection of these songs to produce the inaugural release “A Sun Came” on Asthmatic Kitty Records, a home label Sufjan initiated with his step-dad Lowell. A thousand copies were manufactured and shipped to a dark, dank closet somewhere in the vacuous black hole of the universe, where they shifted and snored in their sleep for several years to come.
Sufjan then moved to New York City and lived bohemian style, with three other college graduates, in the unfashionable financial district, commuting by bike to The New School for Social Research, where he was enrolled in the masters program for writers. There he met Jhumpa Lahiri, harassed Philip Gourevitch on the telephone, and tried unsuccessfully to complete an epic collection of stories and sketches about backwoods Midwestern kinsmen—Christian Fundamentalists, Amway salesmen, crystal healers— all set in a small rural town in Michigan. Hmmmm. No one seemed very interested. Sufjan went back to the 4-track, tired of “words, words, words,” and set out to complete his most ambitious project to date: a collection of programmatic, symphonic songs for the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. There were no lyrics, but more than a few cymbal swells, flourishes on the oboe, and ambient organ drones, all accompanied by computer-generated techno beats, and digital noise. The result was enterprising, but not quite flattering. He sent a few copies to press, which fell on confused ears. “A hyper-modified Atari battling a souped-up Colecovision in a chess match/battle royal,” one writer noted. Feeling inspired, Sufjan dropped off a copy at New York’s favored record store, Other Music, only to find it in the used section, reduced price, two weeks later. Sufjan took this as a compliment. His label did not. Write songs, his step-dad insisted. Write something with words and melodies.
Sufjan went back to the books, mainly his own unwritten one. Taking bits and scraps of unfinished stories (character sketches, plot lines, penciled diagrams) Sufjan began to arrange his misshapen fiction into the bold mechanics of song, making friends with line breaks, meter, and rhyme scheme. These things led to melody, odd time signature, and a litany of jingle jangles on the drum kit, which had been taken out of storage once and for all. Here and there, on weekend trips, in quiet gasps of free time, Sufjan carried around his 8-track, recording songs in people’s homes, in cinderblock basements, in barn houses and rehearsal rooms. The vibraphone in Massachusetts, the electric organ in New Jersey, his sister’s husband’s grand piano, upstate Michigan. Word by word, note by note, everything came together like one great cosmic shuffle, the Big Bang. The result was a lushly orchestrated road trip through the backwoods of The Great Lake State, from motor-city to the winter beaches of Lake Superior. Now this is more like it! his step-dad said. This sounds pretty good! They decided to release it to the public, to act like a real record label. They found a distributor, a publicist, a booking agent, a make-up artist, a mime. Things were looking good. People lent an eager ear. The critics lowered their knives and their critical brow. Other Music put it in New Releases, top shelf! Europeans weren’t offended! Sufjan began to feel gallant and bold and confident about this great place called Planet Earth.
Enjoy these three songs from Sufjan, some of my favorites by him:
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