October 16, 2010

By Mark, A Sufjan Explanation

After the posting of this week's Mid-Week Mix, a couple of people asked Mark Perkins about the appeal of Sufjan Stevens...and the distinguishing differences between his previous albums and his most recent.

Here is his response:

Let’s start here. This pretty-boy banjo plucker has this blistering mess sitting in his back pocket. What I mean is, Sufjan has a remarkable ability to hit exactly what he’s aiming for. So, THESIS: Sufjan, like extraordinarily few other artists, does what he wants, and whatever it is that he wants to do, he does well.

I have to start with the state albums, Michigan and Illinois, if I'm going to talk about his appeal. Then I'll bounce over to Seven Swans, which provides a better lens for understanding Adz and a nice segue into talking about everything else he's done since debuting as a solo artist. I'll ignore Marzuki. I recognize that this is a rather ridiculous way to respond to two brief questions. Yet here we are. Naturally what follows is a non-technical, listener's evaluation.

I. The State Albums

I imagine most Sad Bears would prefer to talk about Detroit Rock City (idea, not song) rather than, say, the Sad Sack State. The White Stripes are more emblematic of Detroit music than, say, Sufjan Stevens, but Sufjan’s Michigan embodies something about the state as a whole that you won't find in rock and roll. Outside the appealingly gritty aspects of industrial Detroit or the chic Ann Arbor downtown, sentiments run a little less aggressive, a little more run down. Saginaw, Jackson, Jonesville, and all the sagging barns in between, all the meth labs, the closed plants, the U.A.W. pensions: Sufjan truly captures a Michigan sentiment that is not far off the mark despite being a gross generalization. Recall, too, that he writes as a Michigander, born in Detroit, raised in the upper lower peninsula, and schooled at Hope College.

Michigan is a subtler, less grandiose album than Illinois. It's not all melancholy : 'Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)’ in particular has a turn-of-the-(19th-)century, metropolis-building energy. Sufjan knows when to let his voice do the work, when to use piano, banjo, when to bring in some horns or a background singer. And it’s the perfect intertwining of these elements that a thousand others have tried and in varying degrees failed to do. Sufjan has marvelous evocative power.

And then along came Illinois. Less subtle. More grandiose. Even longer titles, lots of trilling flutes, more background vocals, more horns, rolling drums, pop, pizazz, etc. ‘Chicago’ often stands as a microcosm of the album: beautiful, poignant—and enormously catchy. Disliking this song betrays some sort of wicked prejudice, some arbitrary discriminatory criteria designed to exclude unauthorized catchiness (Sorry. I've been reading postcolonial historiography.) 'Chicago' may have more to do with the idea of the city than the city itself, well, that’s kind of the idea, isn’t it? (“I was in love with a place / in my mind, in my mind”). And here I think of Stephen Millhauser’s Chicago as a Midwestern frontier city in Martin Dressler... again with the turn-of-the-century metropolis. The bubbling, industrious optimism combined with fatalistic undertones in both ‘Detroit’ and ‘Chicago’ evokes the "belle époque" for me, and that's that.

‘Chicago’ is crunched in the middle of a brilliant three-track progression from cheery pop to energetically reflective pop to agonized reflection. I know of no better laundry-list of a town’s civic trivia than ‘Decatur,’ and no more touching a reflection on a friend’s death than ‘Casimir Pulaski Day.’ For that matter, find me better treatment of alien visitation than the album’s opener. Consider also how the album’s weepiest tune, ‘Predatory Wasp…’ precedes ‘Zombies!…’ which hints at the "phat beats" of Adz (and here's to whoever saw hip-hop potential in creating ‘Zombies Walk!!’).

The Tiny Mix Tapes review of The Age of Adz mentions ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ as something of a forerunner of Adz’s distressing elements: “He dressed up like a clown for them / with his face paint white and red / and on his best behavior / in a dark room on the bed / he kissed them all . . . he took off all their clothes for them / he put a cloth on their lips / quiet hands, quiet kiss…” I admit that a few lines overreach (namely “Are you one of them?,” “He’d kill ten thousand people / with a slight of his hand,” and the slightly clichéd introspective moralizing of the final lines). On the whole, though, it’s brilliantly written and downright frightening.

II. The Christian Album

I challenge you to find a profile or mainstream article of Sufjan that doesn't lightly needle his employment of biblical imagery as though he were Thomas Kinkade or Joel Osteen. Moments of the Christmas albums support the idea, but... they're Christmas albums, and even those are not toothless. But it is Seven Swans that did most to solidify his reputation as the Sunday School teacher of indie music.

Like the Mountain Goats’ the Life of the World to Come, Sufjan’s Seven Swans mixes biblical passages and images with human pain—and some really wild imagery. As with Darnielle, Sufjan treats Scripture with sympathy, reverence, and a bit of subversion. Consider a passage from ‘Seven Swans’: “We saw the dragon move down / my father burned into coal / my mother saw it from far / she took her purse to the bed / I saw a sign in the sky / seven horns, seven horns, seven horns / I heard a voice in my mind / I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord . . . he will take you / if you run / he will chase you . . . cause he is the Lord...” The images here are less painter of light, more William Blake.

Seven Swans
, released between the state albums, is a pretty, quiet album. Most tracks feature nothing more than a handful of instruments, and the voices of Sufjan and the girls from the Danielson Famile. What casual listeners—and a number of fans, too—miss behind and within that prettiness is some substantial weirdness.

III. The Early (Solo) Albums

The three aforementioned albums compose the bulk of Sufjan's career prior to the past couple months. His first albums, A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit, are less known. As it should be. Plenty interesting in hindsight, they aren't especially good albums in their own right.

If you want to place the ugliness sprinkled throughout Adz, start with Sufjan’s first album. I’m not sure if Sufjan was playing with Danielson at this point, but you can hear an affinity throughout A Sun Came. ‘A Winner Needs a Wand’ (‘I Want to Be Well’ may be Suf’s first “fuck” but “this life has shit on me” appears a couple times) and ‘Jason' are the best tracks. This disjointed album suggests Sufjan may have more up his sleeve in the future.

I suppose I understand the latter-day fuss over Enjoy Your Rabbit. It’s the clearest precedent for the electronic sounds of Adz. Recall, too, that Sufjan recorded this in 2001 without Garage Band, etc. It’s an experimental album. As such, it provides plenty of material for reinterpretation and room for adjustment—hence the Osso Quartet’s revamping this past year, and the upcoming album-inspired ballet. But it’s more interesting than exactly good. Check out the Years of Ox, Boar, and Dragon, and especially the title track, and you can probably call it a day.

IV. 2006-Present

I'm glad Adz came out now, and not 2006 or 2007. Three or four years ago everyone was either clambering for a follow-up or pissed that this flutist choir boy was so hyped. In the aftermath of Illinois blowing up, Adz would have been seen as, basically, an attempt to sidestep expectations.

Of course he's released a lot of material since Illinois, starting with B-sides. I can't shake a comparison between Sufjan's the Avalanche and Radiohead's Amnesiac. Both were initially recorded in the same sessions as the preceding, landmark album. Both were released a year later. But Avalanche is a b-sides, while Radiohead released Amnesiac as a studio album in its own right. The attending expectations destroyed Amnesiac. Fans of Sufjan knew they were getting table scraps and were pleased because the scraps were quite good.

[Well, okay, there's also the fact that Amnesiac came out just as file-sharing blew up. The story goes that people spent an hour downloading… Spinning Plates. Which, incidentally, I did in 2001 on Napster, and never listened to any post-Kid A Radiohead until college.]

Sufjan released the Christmas albums soon afterwards. The combination of those albums and Avalanche sated the fanboys (me) without really addressing expectations. And then Sufjan had numerous guest spots, tended to his own record label, produced a handful of albums, made the BQE for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and dropped a few songs: the afore-linked ‘In the Words of the Governor,' the NPR-initiated 'Lord God Bird,' the 2007-tour-theme 'Majesty, Snowbird', and ‘You are the Blood,’ which dominated initial discussion of Dark Was the Night.

I’m afraid I am not sure where All Delighted People falls in my scheme. My guess is that Sufjan had a bunch of really great tracks sitting around that just didn’t fit with Adz. They were to good to go unreleased, but to release them as a b-sides would imply they were recorded at the same time and with the same vision of Adz. I think this “EP” probably could have cut some of the sixty minutes off (does the “classic rock version”—which my dad thinks sounds like bizarro Neil Young—really need to be eight minutes? How about three? And while the expansive 17-minutes of ‘Djohariah’ work fine initially, it gets a little wearying after a few listens). Still, it’s great. The opener/title track stacks up to Sufjan's grandest work. ‘From the Mouth of Gabriel’ and ‘Heirloom’ are fantastic lyrically and musically.

I am not ready to write about Adz at length, but I’ll offer a few thoughts:
-Sufjan’s moved here from fascinating takes on external material—the states and Scripture—to more standard songwriter materia: himself. But what a weird self we seem to have gotten.
-In some ways this is his most comprehensive representative album: the ugliness and inconsistency of A Sun Came, the electronic experimentation of Enjoy Your Rabbit, the melancholy of Michigan, intimacy of Seven Swans, and catchiness of Illinois.
-I love the kitchen-sink electronic approach (particularly ‘Too Much,’ ‘Age of Adz,’ and portions of ‘Impossible Soul’). It’s why I love Dan Deacon and appreciate Fuck Buttons. I think it works.
-In less-packed tracks he delivers some great beats and some nearly, not-quite danceable tunes (‘I Walked,’ ‘Get Real Get Right,’ ‘Vesuvius,’ ‘I Want to Be Well,’ portions of ‘Impossible Soul’).
-On the whole, I think this is another example of Sufjan deciding to shoot for a particular aesthetic and succeeding.


I’ve enjoyed writing this down and listening through Sufjan’s discography again. Thanks to Silliman and Tony for providing the impetus.

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Blogger Tony said...

A few thoughts after the bat, and then maybe more later:

* I think it's Sufjan's vocal style and the instrumentation that I'm not totally biting on. It feels a bit taxing to me. I have some aversion to epicness (which I flout regularly) and a lot of Sufjan seems needlessly labor intensive to me the listener. Sort of like when I first heard "I'm From Barcelona" and liked it, then had a violent reaction to how annoying it was to listen to more than one song in a row. So maybe Michigan is where I need to be looking ...

* "Chicago" is awesome, can't deny that.

* Listening through the examples you point out, I'm left wondering how to approach the music. On one hand, it seems like his albums would be nice to hear as ... background music to life ... On the other hand that wouldn't do justice to his lyrics (obviously). But I'm not sure I have the grit to really dig into what he's doing on the more elaborate tracks. On my third hand, I'd opt for going straight to the simple/plucking stuff.

October 17, 2010 at 10:51 AM 
Blogger Tony said...

Also, the NYT weighs in on Sufjan in the Sunday paper: Mr. Strummy-Strum Tries a Synth Sound.

October 17, 2010 at 2:43 PM 
Blogger M. Perkins said...

I just realized that the city in Martin Dressler is actually New York and not Chicago. And it's Steven Millhauser, not Stephen. Woops. I still think the feel of a booming transition from 19th-century city to 20th-century metropolis applies.


I appreciate your thoughts, and I'm glad (impressed?) you read the whole thing. That NYT hed is hilarious. Very interesting. They don't mention that Robertson, the artist, was at times frighteningly misogynistic.

If you could get yourself a copy of the Irish Times, it sounds like Sufjan himself pretty much agrees with your skepticism of epic: "I got really sick of myself and my own flawed, epic approach to everything." And thinking about your idea of music v. lyrics: Adz "is more personal, because I didn’t have an object to project meaning on to, so I was left with my own instincts, my own emotional impulses." Those excerpts via Stereogum.

A note on weird hip-hop connections: Wikipedia tells me that Jedi Mind Tricks, among other hip-hop groups/artists, has sampled the piano/flutes on "Dumb I Sound" from A Sun Came. I kind of like the JMT track. Check it out.

Also a lot of people seem to be calling Adz "Sufjan's Kid A," in the sense of: huge release, a few years gap, and then a dramatically different, expectation-defying electronic release. There may be something there: the drum kit/drums on "I Want to Be Well" really do sound like classic Radiohead, and, you know, Thom Yorke and Sufjan both do the choir boy thing. I'm not sure that comparison really holds up.

I do think it's interesting that I, completely separately, drew a Kid A comparison myself (Illinois = Kid A, Avalanche = Amnesiac), though mine wasn't at all a stylistic comparison.

October 17, 2010 at 4:27 PM 
Blogger Daniel Silliman said...

I appreciate this Mark. I have liked a lot of his stuff, but just, I guess, am not happy with the turn he's taken in Adz.

I try to explain it a little more here: http://www.thethepoetry.com/2010/10/something-important-a-couple-of-thoughts-on-ambition-in-a-work-of-art/

October 27, 2010 at 1:30 PM 
Blogger M. Perkins said...

Great post. I'm not convinced Sufjan is 100% done with states, though.

October 28, 2010 at 1:59 AM 

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