Monday, November 8, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 81 - Sufjan Stevens

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Reading any one of the contemporary reviews of Sufjan Stevens' 2005 album Illinois, its remarkable to see how much space the critics spent talking about his long-vaunted "50 States Project." After this album and the earlier Michigan, Stevens was a whopping four percent of the way to his ambitious goal of releasing an album centered around each of the fifty states in the Union. It's a gimmick, but a gimmick that worked, because critics and writers got really excited about this, leading to all sorts of jokes about the double-album California and the EP Rhode Island. "Let's just hope he doesn't stop when he gets to number 50," wrote Tim Jonze in NME Magazine, lending hope to all residents of the District of Columbia and American Samoa.

But the next geographically-oriented album never arrived, and when Stevens finally admitted in 2009 that the whole thing was simply a "promotional gimmick," there was a lot of righteous indignation around the Internet. (How dare Stevens propose an insanely gigantic project that anyone with common sense could see was never going to be completed?!?). A lot of Stevens' music since the abandonment of the 50 States Project has veered into a very different style, trading simple banjo music and refined strings for apocalyptic synthesizers and weird vocal effects.

But I, for one, am delighted as to Stevens' change of course. Not only because I find his electronic stuff interesting (possibly even better than his "state" albums), but because it retroactively redeems him from the conceptual gimmick he was hiding behind. The 50 States conceit is clever, the song titles humorous in a bemused, self-aware sort of manner. But Stevens' music, even on the state albums, is intensely personal, and framing the whole thing as a cartographic project helped people forget about this.

Because, let's face it, musical concepts are simple. It's incredibly easy to shoot out half a dozen ideas for Stevens' planned state albums - an Edison-based song on New Jersey called "The Wizard of Menlo Park," a musical ode to Faulker on Mississippi titled "The Sound and the Fury," a history of Hemingway in Key West for Florida. But what makes Illinois an interesting album aren't the half-baked references to the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, nor the obvious allusions to Carl Sandburg's poem. The songs are good songs in spite of the statehood conceit, not because of it. 

Stevens could have clung to his banjo and his gazetteer for the next forty-eight albums, making easy references to state after state while wowing the critics with his skill at seventh-grade geography. But he decided to do something more difficult, and I respect him for that, even if it means a far more limited listening audience. At the very least, it means people will be talking about the music, and not the concept behind it.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Sufjan Stevens

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Stevens is one of my girlfriend's favorite artists, so I knew quite a bit coming into this week. However, most of it was in piecemeal fashion (his name means "He who comes with a sword"), and I had listened to very little of his actual music. On a road trip last December, ChargeShot!!! editor Rob Kunzig did play me some of his Christmas music, but that's hardly an indication of why he made a name for himself.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Illinois (2005) every day this week. I also listened to The Age of Adz (2010) three times, and Michigan (2003) and All Delighted People (2010) twice each.

With his wispy voice and his keen sense of orchestration, Stevens is capable of creating very intimate songs. An early example comes in the form of "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," which combines acoustic indie rock with old-time mountain ballads for an experience that seems very fragile but is nonetheless full of emotional depth. Initially just a banjo and Stevens' voice, the backing vocals and low brass come in around a minute into the song. This is something that I noticed on every album I listened to this week: Stevens is a master of spicing up his songs with these interesting accompaniments.

This instrumental layering with intricate orchestration is played for even greater effect on Illinois. Here is an album that takes a while to sink in. Initially, it sounded a lot like the indie-folk aesthetic of Michigan, but there's actually a lot more going on. In many ways, I enjoyed the instrumental breaks on the album even more than I did the vocals. "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" has a great instrumental section in the middle, for example. Additionally, Stevens has gotten better on this album with the slow build; songs like "Jacksonville" gradually gains momentum to conclude with a delightful flourish. And again, the orchestration is key to the character of the song.

But if the two state albums are Stevens indulging in classical chamber music - intricately constructed, personal yet emotionally restrained - then his latest two releases are him going full-blown into bombastic Romanticism. The songs are longer, the noise is louder, and the sounds are generally weirder. "The Age of Adz" begins with an electronic pulse before growing into a monstrous cloud of dissonance, then lurching forward from section to section for the next eight minutes. It's initially off-putting, but once you get over the fact that we're not in Illinois anymore, I liked it a great deal. There are some songs on the album in which Stevens' thin voice is completely swept away in the maelstrom. But in "The Age of Adz," its more like the storm clouds parting whenever Stevens' tender vocals come in, only to morph back into a raging hurricane when he departs. It manages to combine the bellicose electronica with Stevens' voice fairly well.

Other highlights from The Age of Adz include the slightly-more-normal "Vesuvius," which sounds like a medieval troubadour fighting with HAL 3000, and the symphonic-length "Impossible Soul," which might be self-indulgent if it weren't some damn interesting (though the Autotune is a bit much). On this final song, Stevens' classical training betrays him; it's an elaborately constructed five-part suite, meant to be listened to in one sitting, as the music strives to happiness before ending in defeat.

For the most part, Michigan felt a little flat to me. With the exception of the one song mentioned above, most of the tracks did little to differentiate themselves to me. Whereas each track on Illinois seemed to adopt its own unique personality, Michigan is little more than a muddle. I can't quite tell why one works for me while the other doesn't - listening to "Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)," from Michigan, I feel like I should be feeling something emotional. All the elements I like on Illinois are there, down to the brass section that appears in the middle. But I'm not feeling it; in a strange way, the slightly more coy, playful Illinois proves to be better at conveying emotion than the sincerity of Michigan. 

All Delighted People, with one exception mentioned below, also left me a little flat. Although, to be fair, the hour-long work is technically an "EP," which indicates it's more of a clearinghouse for Stevens than a fully-conceived artistic statement. But do we really need two versions of the title track? I didn't even like the "Original Version," let alone the "Classic Rock" one. The sheer creativity on a lot of Stevens' longer tracks made them able to carry the weight of their length, but not so on these two.

Finally, both Illinois and The Age of Adz are packed a little full. With Illinois, my interest starts to flag toward the end when Stevens puts on his Steve Reich mask and moves from indie folk to full-blown minimalism, like in "Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run." (If I want to listen to Music for 18 Musicians, I'll put in the CD myself, thank you very much). With The Age of Adz, it's those tracks where Stevens' wisp of a voice can't quite hold the song on its own. "I Walked" should have either been an acoustic piece, or gotten even weirder; as it stands right now, Stevens' voice just sounds annoying and a little thin.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's the early albums A Sun Came (2000) and Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001), though even my girlfriend has admitted that they "sort of suck." More promise seems to be in Seven Swans (2004) and the B-side collection The Avalance (2006).



The best thing to be found on All Delighted People. It doesn't feel like it's 17 minutes long.