Sufjan Stevens illustration by Joel Benjamin
Entertainment

The Guide to Getting Into Sufjan Stevens, Master of Emotion

As the prolific polymath prepares to release his eighth studio record 'The Ascension', we’re here to plot a path through his wildly diverse discography.
September 24, 2020, 10:42am

Sifting through Sufjan Stevens’ discography, you start to question whether you’ve imagined some of the entries. An instrumental album based around the animals of the Chinese zodiac; a multi-media tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; five-discs of carol covers undertaken as an exercise to make himself “appreciate” Christmas more; a song commissioned by NPR about a near-extinct woodpecker in Arkansas. These are not your standard, conventional inspirations – but then Sufjan Stevens is not your standard, conventional singer-songwriter.

In fact, never has the term “singer-songwriter” felt so ridiculously inadequate to describe someone. Whatever the subject matter, Stevens imbues it with a dreamlike beauty and depth. He has a magical ability to balance the epic and the intimate, deftly elevating anything from little known stories to Biblical tales to character studies of serial killers and figure skaters into universal and life-affirming songs. As instrumentalist Rob Moose, who arranged those lush strings for 2005’s Illinois, once put it: he has “a unique way of distilling something vast into a whisper”.

When Sufjan Stevens emerged into indie consciousness at the beginning of the century with Michigan and Seven Swans, he seemed an artist out of time, drowned out by dance punk and the early ’00s “new rock revolution”. He was grouped together with a troupe of shy, earnest, whispering folk singers like Bright Eyes, Iron and Wine and The Decemberists (when Spin reviewed Seven Swans, they described it as "Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday school”), but it quickly became clear that his scope was much broader. This was an artist influenced as much by Stravinsky, Strauss and Steve Reich as he is by Nick Drake.

Not that you would get that from the things he says. His own harshest critic, Stevens considers himself “fundamentally and always… a folk singer-songwriter”, and once claimed to be “sick of” his voice and his “strummy-strum acoustic guitar songs”. But there are few living artists so eclectic and prolific.

His first releases – 1999’s A Sun Came (which features a track about a sexy, farting superhero) and 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit – saw an artist still searching for their own sound, and were followed by a two-year break in which he studied creative writing and “hardly played at all”. Then came 2003’s Greetings From Michigan – the first of the expansive 50 States project (which he famously abandoned after two albums, later claiming it was “all advertising... it was intended just to get attention”).

Then came a flurry of releases: 2004’s Seven Swans, a meditation on his faith; 2005’s Illinois, a vivid, widescreen masterpiece; a seemingly endless number of Christmas carols; The BQE project in 2009; a handbrake turn into the manic neon electro of 2010’s The Age of Adz. Then, of course there was 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, an intense and sublime record about the death of his mother. (And we haven’t even got time to dwell on stuff like the ambient album with his step-father, or hip-hop record with Serengeti and Son Lux.)

“This is not my art project; this is my life," he once said of Carrie & Lowell – but, really, all his albums are his life. Sufjan Stevens’ songs encompass grief, heartbreak, faith, love and woodpeckers; they are songs you can fit your own feelings inside. I’ve always felt that if you could describe his voice – which sounds so human and yet from somewhere else entirely – it would unlock the key to the universe. It’s so tender and evocative that if you search the world wide web you’ll find memes and Reddit threads about him becoming visibly emotional during his own shows. One comment reads: “Imagine having a voice so beautiful you make yourself cry!”

This week, Stevens returns with his eighth studio album, The Ascension – a jittering, electronic 80-minutes that examines his “crisis of faith” about his identity as an American, and his relationship to “our culture” (2020 will do that to a person). So what better time to revisit his sprawling body of work as a whole? Warning: by the time I’d gone through everything I was 89 percent tears, 6 percent wistfulness, and 7 percent banjo. Five percent unaccounted for ennui. Join me, please...

So you want to get into… epic, full orchestra Sufjan Stevens?

“A multi-instrumentalist with a music theory background” would suggest stuffy and lifeless music, but Stevens’ orchestral pop catalogue is rich, accessible and gloriously twee in places (he literally has a Christmas song called “Come On! Let’s Boogie to the Elf Dance!”). Defined largely by 2003’s Greetings From Michigan and 2005’s Illinois, this cinematic sound is what first put him on the map, and is in many ways the yardstick by which new releases are considered (“When’s the next state album coming out?” is now a question journalists are told not to ask him).

From piano, Wurlitzer and banjo to the oboe, glockenspiel and tambourine – the number of instruments Sufjan played himself on Illinois is matched only by the length of its song titles, which feature lots! of! exclamation! marks! (see: “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!”) But all these ideas, all these bells and whistles, were needed to bring to life the vastness of the US and all its history.

Similarly, we have pure baroque maximalism with Greetings From Michigan – an extended lesson about the Great Lakes state as well as Midwestern tales of his parents' unemployment and friend’s ordination. It’s full of delicate, percussive symphonies (and more! exclamation marks!) like “Say yes! to M!ch!gan!” and “Detroit, lift up your weary head! (rebuild! restore! reconsider!)”, while other tracks like “Flint” and “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black” stretch out ahead of you, desolate and beautiful. Amazingly, much of this material was crafted in his home studio on a shoestring budget.

It s tempting to think of this as the definitive Sufjan sound – partly because “Chicago” is one of his most famous songs, and partly because it’s how he landed on many people’s radars. But in a post-Carrie & Lowell / Call Me By Your Name world, he's shown that he can crush your chest like an empty can regardless of whether he's playing 20 instruments or one.

Playlist: “Flint” / “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” / “Say yes! to M!ch!gan!” / “Detroit, lift up your weary head! (rebuild! restore! reconsider!)” / “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” / “Chicago” / “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is out to get us!” / “Adlai Stevenson” / “Movement V: Self Organising” / “Come On! Let’s Boogie to the Elf Dance!”

So you want to get into… stripped back, emotionally devastating Sufjan Stevens?

Or “strummy-strum acoustic guitar” Sufjan, as he might call it (it’s worth noting that he’s been nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy for one of these “strummy-strum acoustic guitar” songs). By the time we get to Seven Swans, we’re presented with an artist without artifice, and a stripped-back, devastatingly personal sound. It saw Stevens’ focus shift from _Michigan_’s rust belt upwards to the heavens, with songs considering his relationship to faith and making sacrifices for love. Often just vocals and a banjo, there’s a purity to these songs that cuts right to the bone: sometimes they’re so sparse they’re barely there, sometimes they’re swelling with transcendental joy.

This sound has become a consistent staple of his career, from the heart-wrenching “Casimir Pulaski Day” on Illinois and “Futile Devices” on The Age of Adz. However, we didn’t get another full album of stark, soul-baring songs until 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, which is like Seven Swans shot through with a decade’s worth of hurt.

Carrie & Lowell pared Sufjan’s songwriting style down to its essentials. There are no orchestral flourishes, no electronic embellishments; there aren’t even any drums. The fact that this is free from any superfluous embellishment makes sense: this is a record of unflinching recollections of his mother. “We’re all gonna die” he repeats over and over on “Fourth Of July”, before imploring “Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light.” Stevens has jokingly described the album’s sound as “easy listening” (they are, of course, anything but).

Most recently, his heartbreak was brought to the big screen with two songs on the soundtrack for Call Me By Your Name. It was “Mystery of Love” that was nominated for the Oscar, but it’s the “I have loved you for the last time” line on “Visions of Gideon”, as the shot holds on Elio’s tears, that really ruins you. The song accompanies the scene so perfectly that director Luca Guadagnino made Timothée Chalamet wear an earpiece so he could listen to it while they were filming.

Playlist: “Vito’s Ordination Song” / “Romulus” / “To Be Alone With You” / “The Transfiguration” / “Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie” / “Casimir Pulaski Day” / “Futile Devices” / “Visions of Gideon” / “Death with Dignity” / “Fourth of July”

So you want to get into… frazzled, technicolor electro Sufjan Stevens?

Sufjan Stevens’ career has been marked by restless creativity and a worry that he’s repeating himself. After Illinois he began talking about “how to responsibly sabotage the listenability of my music in order to challenge it”, then took a five-year break. In 2010 he returned with The Age of Adz – a disorienting and cacophonous album full of crashing beats, distorted trombones (“Too Much”) and a 25-minute post-modern symphony featuring harps, horns, glitches, auto-tune and an electro breakdown that took four years to compose (“Impossible Soul” – fun fact: I walked down the aisle to this for my wedding as I continue to compete for the prize of indie-est, whitest man in the world).

It makes a weird sort of sense that he would undertake a journey to dirty the pristine sound he’s best known for; to scuff it up and add glitches and noise. It was also around this time he was struck by a “mysterious and debilitating” illness that left him feeling “possessed” and unable to work on music for months. The anguish and distress is palpable on Adz – at one point he literally cries “I want to be well”.

Of course, there had been hints of this before. 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, with its primitive electro that at points sounds like Brian Eno and at others like an Atari falling apart, can be seen as a forerunner to a sound he would go on to explore briefly on The BQE. This also seems closest to the current incarnation of Sufjan. For Pride Month 2019, he released “Love Yourself” – a fluttering electro track based on a sketch of a demo from 1999. Now, The Ascension sees him return to the glitchy synthesizers that defined Adz, as he rails against America and its culture. Written almost entirely on a laptop, at times the sound is ominous and claustrophobic. There are hints of techno and even EDM – but there are still references to American icons: not Lincoln or Saul Bellow here, but Janet Jackson and Carly Rae Jepsen.

Playlist: “Year of The Monkey” / “Year of the Ox” / “Movement IV: Traffic Shock” / “I Walked” / “Vesuvius” / “Too Much” / “Impossible Soul” / “Love Yourself” / “America” / “Video Game”

@dethink2survive