The lights had come up in the cinema, Sufjan Stevens’s “Visions of Gideon” was playing and Timothée Chalamet was crying in front of a fire. “I have loved you for the last time / is it a video / is it a video?”
Some glitch in bureaucratic protocol had meant that instead of sinking into this moment in the dark, quietly wiping the tears from our eyes, all of us in the audience were left blinking into the bright lights. The film and the music were still playing but the spell had been broken. Having been drawn hypnotically into a vivid world, we, the audience, had been thrown from it – snatched from a dream and dumped back into reality.
Last night at the Oscars (watch below), Stevens came up from the ground with St Vincent and Moses Sumney alongside him, though it was hard to tell because the jacket he was wearing – a colourful number emblazoned with dragons, among other things – blocked out almost everything around him. Nominated for best song for Call Me By Your Name’s “Mystery of Love”, Stevens’s performance promised, for a certain generation of indie fan, to evoke memories of Elliot Smith’s 1998 performance for Good Will Hunting. Like Smith, Stevens didn’t win. But for a couple of minutes, he gave Hollywood a somewhat nervous, somewhat truncated taste of what he can do.
Listen to Sufjan Stevens for too long and you will be taken into a world that is alive with emotion, where feeling is raw and nerves are touched and where the past is present. “I wanted to envelop the movie in the voice of Sufjan Stevens”, the director of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagino, said in an interview withDeadline last year. And that’s exactly what he did. Stevens’s music is crucial to the success of the film; it is delicate, evocative, breathless and full of melancholy. It conjures love and loss; that right and classic combination of picked guitar lines, religious imagery and wistfully intense feeling.
In the full ecstatic flush of their relationship, Timothée Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver run up the hillside of the Serio Waterfalls, in Lombardy, northern Italy. Stevens’s “Mystery of Love” overlays the sound of the thundering water and the howls of the lovers. This moment of freedom – the hillside lush with grass, the water all around and the demands of society far away – is the climax to a summer of exploration. God, history, fate, desire and loss are all woven through “Mystery of Love”, as they are through so many Sufjan Stevens songs and so it is the perfect soundtrack to this film and to this moment, a song to celebrate beauty and to foretell loss.
As we left the cinema, I thought of another film set in Italy, The Great Beauty, which travels on such a high plain of emotion that you always feel as though it is going to fall disastrously off into sentimentality, and yet it never does. The same can be said of Stevens’s music – he navigates the emotional high wire with style and grace, sometimes threatening to slip but never plunging down to the ground. He pushes and pushes and pushes the feelings till you think that surely they must crack and become mawkish, become a cheesy anthem or a soppy ballad picked out by a man who can’t channel what’s inside him. But that never happens and Sufjan stays in control of his art.
You might say, of course, that when it comes to Sufjan Stevens, it’s all just a bit much. That here I am blubbering into my flat white, the sound of a banjo and some ballad about loving Jesus too much filling my earphones. When you operate on that high wire of emotion, as Sufjan does, there are always going to be people who think you fell to the ground long ago, clutching your Americana, your orchestras and your biblical references tight to your custom-made concert outfit. Another charge is that all of this over the top feeling (He touched my arm … quiver … Angel of Jesus deliver me!) is too overblown to feel real and that Stevens is a po-faced peddler of emotion, a mechanical maker of melancholy, a simulator of the profound truths that run through our lives who has no sense of humour or irony about what he’s doing.
But Stevens’s interviews and particularly his live performances suggest this isn’t true. Here he is giving a relatively serious TV interview wearing massive, colourful wings. For years, he maintained an ironic obsession with Justin Bieber. On his now defunct blog he posted a picture of the boy wonder bathed in light, with the caption: “It’s so bright, I can’t look into his face. God?” He’s covered Hotline Bling. At his live shows, he makes sure to cut through the heaviness of his work with the odd rambling, comedic monologue. He wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus (“Girl you work it like Mike Tyson”) and contained even within his most serious songs are moments of comedy and sly turns of phrase.
“Tonya Harding” is the most recent example of this. It has a lot of the Sufjan trademarks: broken arpeggios, breathy vocals; it shimmers and yet is also deeply melancholic. It’s a slice of Americana. The earnestness is undercut by the turns of phrase in the song. “Tonya Harding, my friend / well this world is a bitch, girl, don’t end up in a ditch, girl”, Sufjan sings. Tonya, an outsider – an American archetype from a broken home – is a perfect Stevens character. She is, like much of his work, rooted in the American landscape and in his telling she is taken from the pages of the National Enquirer and into the catalogue of a modern mythmaker.
In some of its language, as well as its subject matter, “Tonya Harding” hints at the queerness that runs through Stevens’s music, a queerness that is obviously brought close to the surface by Call Me By Your Name. There’s even a popular Facebook group celebrating the singer-songwriter, called “Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or about God?”, that churns out Sufjan memes and tends to take the piss out of straight guys who’d rather ignore the songs that seem to be about two men loving each other. Also, the answer is clear: the song is gay AND about God.
The multitudes contained within the songs of Sufjan Stevens – of sexuality, of meaning, of spirituality – allows him to evoke feelings that seem universal and timeless. His command of religious imagery evokes ancient feelings and provides lyrical depth. Stevens is adept at blending past and present, the Biblical with the pop cultural. The strangeness, the queerness, the biblical imagery and the naked excavation of family make Sufjan unlike his bro-ish counterparts in the singer-songwriter community. If he can sometimes remind you of Bon Iver, Stevens’s music is more often reminiscent of the Hidden Cameras or Magnetic Fields, queer masters of the pop song, skilled evokers of love and longing.
Stevens’s songs for Call Me By Your Name fit the vision of him walking the emotional high wire, injecting queerness into his sometimes wistful, occasionally whimsical explorations of love and loss, past and present. In one of the film’s key scenes, Elio’s father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, tells his son that while, “right now, there’s sorrow, there’s pain”, it is vital that he doesn’t deaden that pain, block it out for fear of feeling it. The songs of Sufjan Stevens remain alive to pain. They contain beauty and great sadness but they remain open to the world. Nothing has been blocked out. Sufjan didn’t win an Academy Award. No matter. They didn’t deserve him anyway.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.