Sunday, January 08, 2006


Sufjan Stevens

After meeting Sufjan Stevens more than a few times, I can tell you that his sincere modesty is antithetical to his grand vision. He is an uncompromising artist who at times creates haunting beauty while at others produces bombastic thrills. Michigan, his first record in his proprosed 50 States project, and the acoustic-leaning Seven Swans are evocative trips into suburbia, capturing an unbiased snapshot of America. His honey-glazed voice is the perfect accompaniment for his tales of desperation, longing, honesty and life. Stevens is an orchestral Michael Moore, a documentarian with a penchant for the flugelhorn.

For his fifth and latest album, Illinois, Sufjan pushed his creativity even further and created an inarguably potent masterpiece in the process. Each song—there are 22 of them—tells a distinctive story of a character confronting his or her personal conflicts and questioning whether there is a larger, encouraging answer to this metaphysical journey we call “life.” One song (“Casimir Pulaski Day”) is about cancer and prayer. Another (“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”) is about a mass murderer and the average person’s ability to relate to one. And a third (“The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”) is either about Superman, the mortality of man or Jesus—the intention is confusing.

Stevens seamlessly straddles the line of literal and metaphorical and refuses to articulate further. Moreover, Stevens, an exemplary and prolific musician, is a successful narrator—an anomaly in a world of unsubstantial lyrical content and sometimes-random word associations. He is like a great author of postmodern literature with an awareness of mortality, religion and technology that positions him akin to a devout version of novelist Don DeLillo.

Potent lyrics aside, Illinois is a wondrous album, full of Broadway-production gospel, festive instrumentation and orchestra-folk that pierces and penetrates like the surreal bittersweet moments when you realize that all will be OK and also not OK at the very same time. While this album’s 79 minutes may seem long, the record is sensational throughout, a sublime effort that never falters. Stevens’ tender voice is both soothing and seductive. Musically, Stevens could be criticized as being out of sync with his generation, if only he hadn’t captured the essence of our country today, when God is both everywhere and nowhere.

[Revised from a previous post]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

only 79 minutes?? Sufjan Stevens could make a 3-day-long album and that would not be long enough. He is a truly novel and honest artist. His music is most ideal for long, lonely car ridesm or for studying. His music will take your passions and sentiments on a journey to many differant places. Really, it is the way he combines complex orchestrational arrangements over the most simple, alluring melody about something beautiful.
I feel that Illinois is his best work yet, though Michigan is not far behind at all. His #1 song is "Oh, God where are you now?" off Michigan, and my #2 is "sister" off of Seven Swans. The best ones off Illinois are "john Wayne Gracy Junior" (strangely reminds me of Tori Amos) and the one about the night demons coming to get us!

9:24 AM  

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