Twenty 5 minute esoteric synth odysseys; banjo odes about whole US states; 120-track Christmas albums; conceptual works detailing the cosmos; and song-titles so lengthy that even Fiona Apple would take a deep breath earlier than announcing them. You might by no means accuse Sufjan Stevens of a scarcity of ambition.
Within the final twenty years, Stevens has shifted sound and scope time and time once more, although his enduring picture stays as a poster boy for ’00s indie-twee: a delicate people artist with a boyish face and a mild, melancholic voice, singing about serial killers, summer season camps and driving cross-country to ‘Chicago’. However for probably the most half, that Sufjan is lengthy gone, hardened.
Selling his latest album Ascension, launched final week, Stevens, now 45, instructed The Guardian that there was a “naïvety to my former self”. “There was a hopefulness, joyfulness and playfulness to a whole lot of these early information that’s been slowly receding over time,” he mentioned.
“It’s arduous for me to talk for it as a result of it’s occurred so regularly, like watching a tree develop. However you begin to lose religion within the constructions of society as you grow old, and I believe that’s coming to the floor now.”
But it surely’d even be naïve to interrupt Stevens’ discography into optimistic and jaded. Hope, cynicism, trauma and love swirl via Stevens’ music, intractable from one another because of his Christianity. There’s a pious sense of struggling all through all his music — a perception that nothing is in useless, absolutely — that, over time, has developed right into a extra esoteric religiosity (with a dose of existential concern).
Hope, cynicism, trauma and love swirl via Stevens’ music, intractable from one another because of his Christianity.
It’s no shock Stevens as soon as mentioned claimed he’d write 50 albums in regards to the US’ 50 states, or that he’s keen on throwing each instrument he can right into a music. This maximalist, all-in ambition has its roots in Stevens’ Walt Whitman-esque transcendentalism — a honest and thorough perception within the inherent goodness of man, may we solely rip aside the boundaries between us.
Simpler mentioned than finished: maybe that’s why his music frequently shifts, an try and hack away from completely different angles. Whether or not he’s singing over just a few guitar strings about considering of a lover like a brother, creating orchestral idea albums in regards to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or pleading “don’t do to me what you probably did to America” over synths, Stevens needs to shrink distance between folks.
It’s what made his music such an ideal to soundtrack Name Me By Your Identify, a movie about homosocial need — the distinctive ache of eager to be somebody to know them wholly, and the impossibility of doing so. However Stevens’ music has linked with a queer viewers lengthy earlier than Timothée Chalamet cried to ‘Visions Of Gideon’, as his relationship with a Godly ‘Him’ leaves house for interpretation. And pronouns apart, Stevens’ non secular longing is a convergence of disgrace and absolution — a sense many queers know effectively (as I’ve written about elsewhere).
These emotions are sometimes much less summary. His opus, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, is a way more autobiographical album, a transparent try to connect with his late mom, whose substance and psychological well being points made her an unknowable determine. The devastating ache beneath is the shortage of decision, the shortcoming to bridge that hole.
Stevens’ earnestness can flip lots of people off. All of his music, banjo or no, is embarrassingly honest. Even at his silliest — misplaced sax solos, asking a neighbour for sugar, auto-tune screeches — Stevens by no means turns his seek for communion or connection right into a joke. His music, whilst its misplaced its twee, stays targeted on the concept that we are able to get nearer.
Right here’s a 15-track information to Stevens’ patchwork quilt profession, selecting on the threads of thought, skipping whole albums (and most of his instrumental side-projects) within the course of by necessity. There’s an excessive amount of to cowl — so come on, really feel the noise.
‘Oh Detroit, Raise Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Rethink!’ — Michigan (2003)
Michigan is Stevens’ third album, but it surely’s his true introduction.
His 2000 debut A Solar Got here is a bloated mess of influences (Celtic, Center-Japanese, people, Elliot Smith) and plenty of, many devices, and follow-up Take pleasure in Your Rabbit is a conceptual digital album in regards to the Chinese language Zodiac. Each communicate to Stevens’ eccentric palate, however neither are significantly accessible. Michigan, regardless of being an idea album about Stevens’ home-state, is.
Having mentioned that, it’s nonetheless rather a lot to soak up. ‘Oh Detroit’ sums it up, an eight-minute ode to a metropolis that’s been battered by industrialism after which left to rot. There are bells, chimes and choral singing about state infrastructure, gun management and the Iroquois folks; it’s twee-chaotic, the music construction itself mirroring the town’s personal rise and fall.
Of their evaluation of Michigan, Pitchfork calls Phillip Glass a transparent affect on Stevens, and it’s most clear right here. Like Einstein On The Seashore, ‘Oh Detroit’ is a monitor of detritus mixed to specific a hope and damage greater than the sum of its elements, its that means in nobody line.
Michigan‘s subsequent monitor is ‘Romulus’, an acoustic ballad in regards to the disgrace he feels about his mom. It’s significantly extra down-tempo: Stevens has at all times discovered hope within the communal.
‘To Be Alone With You’ — Seven Swans (2004)
Stevens’ most overtly Christian album can be his most ignored, sandwiched between Michigan and the career-changing Illinois. Comparatively sparse, virtually dour at occasions, Seven Swans is constructed round Biblical imagery, stuffed with indie hymns of devotion.
‘To Be Alone With You’ could possibly be a secular love music, at first. It’s a cutesy itemizing off of what Stevens would do to fulfill his lover, comparable to swimming throughout Lake Michigan and promoting his footwear. However from the second verse, issues get complicated, particularly with “You gave up a spouse and a household/You gave your ghost” and “I’ve by no means recognized a person who liked me”. God is the apparent reply, because of traces like “To be alone with me/you went up on a tree”, however Stevens’ sense of failure in his personal devotion hits arduous in a queer context.
Stevens’ whispering voice is carried with remorse and reverence, in full awe of what has been finished for his love, and pained that he can not match it. He appears to know penance has many types, and writes to permit interpretation — maybe out of a must make his non secular frustrations enchantment to a wider viewers.
‘John Wayne Gacy, Jnr.’ — Illinois (2005)
The ultimate of Stevens’ ‘states’ albums, Illinois is arguably Stevens’ best-known album — and never only for ‘Chicago’. It’s actually stuffed with songs clearest to his well-liked conception: twee, moody banjo people, cutesy rhymes, and foolish, lengthy music titles.
‘John Wayne Gacy, Jnr.’ stands out, a somber people music about the notorious paedophilic clown serial killer. Sufjan sings via the details — Gacy’s troubled childhood, his many crimes — over a few of his most delicate piano work, an oddly perverse narration in-keeping with true crime podcasts rehashing traumas for leisure worth.
Then, the shift at music’s finish: “And in my greatest behaviour, I’m actually identical to him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets and techniques I’ve hid.” It’s an virtually confession of some darkish secret and deep disgrace, then the banjo flares up on ‘Jacksonville’.
It’s a fleck of darkness largely reserved for his latter profession, an empathy for Gacy constructed off self-loathing.
‘Chicago’ — Illinois (2005)
That is The Sufjan Stevens music. And it deserves to be, too.
Written a couple of tough interval in Stevens’ life, it carries the touchstones of all the things you have to cling to. The music is sweeping, overwhelmingly optimistic — a refrain is available in to sing “all issues go” over sleigh bells, for God’s sake.
A highway journey appears like the prospect for change, but it surely’s additionally a whole lot of reflection: as he drives to Chicago after which NYC, Stevens’ character displays on his life’s errors in imprecise phrases, repeats reassuring platitudes, and cries “for freedom” from himself.
Absolution from our messy lives isn’t potential, however ‘Chicago’ makes the ache of it an absolute pleasure — a Backyard State scream into the abyss, a uniting second of despair. It’s an ideal music.
‘The Predatory Wasps Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us’ — Illinois (2005)
Come for the woodwinds, keep for the homoerotic pining. Describing a nascent love Stevens had at a Methodist summer season camp he not too long ago referred to as an “awakening”, ‘Predatory Wasps’ balloons with the painful pleasure of remembering the previous (“I can let you know I really like him every day”).
A wasp bites his good friend, then he kisses him: Stevens and the music circles again to the chorus “we have been in love!”, desperation and trilling bells rising. There’s nothing to say however to say it (“I can’t clarify the state that I’m in”), realizing the total that means can’t be contained. It’s a thought that comes up once more in ‘Futile Units’, the opener on his subsequent correct solo album, The Age Of Adz.
‘Djoharia’ — All Delighted Folks EP (2010)
While you search for ‘Djoharia’s lyrics on Genius, you’ll see the primary line is “[11 minutes of crazy guitar intro/buildup]”. It’s no hyperbole: issues begin gradual, however the screeching is available in, an electrical guitar leaping round wherever it needs as Stevens sings his sister’s title, ‘Djoharia’.
It traces her life, the calm and the chaos and violence blown up right into a jarring, psychedelic epic. The payoff may not be there but in her life, however Stevens creates it within the music — 11 minutes in, the guitar falls away, and the chanting of her title turns into soothing.
A hand clap is available in, and Stevens cheers her on in a falsetto: “go on, little sister!”. With a development like that, Stevens has the facility to make giant proclamations — when his core message to his sister, “all of the wilderness of the world is yours”, arrives, the buildup makes it not simply earned, however inevitable.
‘Futile Units’ — The Age Of Adz (2010)
You’d think about the opener of Stevens’ digital album The Age Of Adz — the one he wore neon angel wings on stage to carry out — would mark the shift, however ‘Futile Units’ is considered one of his most straightforward tracks.
Over a mild piano and percussive guitar, Stevens’ sings in regards to the small joys of home love: having somebody put a blanket over you, watching them crochet and feeling ‘mesmerised and proud’. However, once more, he can’t specific the love he feels, and reaches for odd metaphors — “I consider you as my brother/though that sounds dumb”.
The lullaby continues, and he bemoans that ‘phrases are futile units’ — an concept on the centre of Name Me By Your Identify (and much more queer literature), and little question why the music options prominently within the movie.
Right here, it’s an oblique argument for the electro-odyssey to observe — impressed in twin elements by Stevens’ grappling with a thriller sickness and the work of artist Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic painter who believed himself a prophet portray robotic Gods he noticed in visions. The Age Of Adz is an try and shoot Stevens’ music into house through synths, glitch and auto-tune: a striving past ‘Futile Units’.
‘Unattainable Soul’ — The Age Of Adz (2010)
Listening to ‘Unattainable Soul’ for the primary time is such an immense pleasure. The 25-minute album nearer is totally unpredictable, extra a sequence of actions than a single monitor.
An ode to the lover of his ‘not possible soul’, that is Stevens’ model of Whitman’s ever-expanding and revised ‘Tune Of Myself’: an epic the place the boundaries of the self are misplaced, contradictions be damned. Like Whitman in ‘Tune Of Myself’, the Stevens in ‘Unattainable Soul’ incorporates multitudes, floating between music sections as if every have been a galaxy shifting his type.
Autotune, celestial bleeps, a home celebration break-down, robots, angelic sing-a-longs: however what, precisely, is it about? Some form of almighty love — God, or the perils of elevating a lover into one? Stevens and the music attain for transcendence, and solely considered one of them will get there: Stevens leaves defeated, however the viewers leaves elated.
‘Christmas Unicorn’ — Silver & Gold (2012)
Sufficient life-and-death discuss: Sufjan could be foolish, too. Silver & Gold is Stevens’ second five-CD set of Christmas songs, that means he has greater than 100 Christmas tracks. It’s merely an excessive amount of, however his obsession is all price it for ‘Christmas Unicorn’, a 12-minute romp that interpolates ‘Love Will Tear Us Aside’.
There’s an 80-page educational paper on the market that argues the music is in regards to the good on the core of the ridiculous commercialism of Christmas, taking a look at all of the theological allusions and the dumb sonic shift into ‘Unattainable Soul’-lite. However this is without doubt one of the few Stevens’ tracks that doesn’t want evaluation. Simply embrace that you just’re the Christmas unicorn! I’m the Christmas unicorn! Discover the Christmas unicorn!
‘Fourth Of July’ — Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Stevens has at all times written from expertise, however the unhappiness and shames littered throughout his work come to mild on Carrie & Lowell, his greatest album. Written in wake of his mom’s dying, Carrie & Lowell is a devastating work — a return to the comparatively sparse compositions of Seven Swans, as if to let his emotions take up as a lot room as they want.
The music is as hopeful as it’s damaged: he describes the second as each therapeutic and alienating, as they attempt to bridge many years of distance.
His mom, Carrie, was absent for many of his life: she deserted his household repeatedly in Stevens’ childhood from age 1, leaving his step-father Lowell to lift Sufjan and his siblings whereas they remained married. Lowell stays an necessary determine in Stevens’ life, operating his label till retiring this 12 months — to mark the top of an period, he collaborated with Stevens on instrumental album Aporia.
‘Fourth Of July’ particulars the final days of Carrie’s life earlier than she handed of most cancers in 2012. Within the monitor, Stevens shifts views, singing his mom’s final phrases — her pleads of forgiveness — again to him.
The music is as hopeful as it’s damaged: he describes the second as each therapeutic and alienating, as they attempt to bridge many years of distance. The music plods alongside till then the dialog ends, and Stevens retains repeating his mom’s try at accepting her maker, “we’re all gonna die”.
‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ — Carrie & Lowell (2015)
It’s arduous to choose solely two tracks from Carrie & Lowell, however ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ covers a whole lot of floor. Stevens has by no means sounded so faint, his voice raspier than standard, sitting beneath the music’s light guitar.
Carrie & Lowell is a failed reckoning together with his mom’s dying, and having to just accept that their relationship can solely shift in his notion. In a 2017 interview, he mentioned writing and releasing it “provided no catharsis or decision or reconciliation”, simply articulation.
Stevens says that after his mom’s dying, he experimented with drug and alcohol abuse as a option to really feel nearer to her. That’s clearest on ‘The Solely Factor’, however ‘No Shadow’ finds him utterly misplaced — there’s no reduction in faith, solely ‘shadow’ and disgrace. Self-flagellation isn’t working both: the way in which he sings “fuck me, I’m falling aside” could be probably the most devastating second of his profession.
‘Thriller Of Love’ — Name Me By Your Identify OST (2017)
After which got here Name Me By Your Identify. Director Luca Guadagnino reached out to Stevens on to ask if he’d write a music for the movie (and carry out it within the movie), and he got here again with two — ‘Thriller Of Love’ and ‘Visions Of Gideon’, and Age Of Adz’s ‘Futile Units’ options too.
‘Visions’ performs within the last scene, the music and Elio questioning each what’s and isn’t tangible in our reminiscences, however ‘Thriller’ captures the romantic coronary heart of the movie. After Carrie & Lowell, it’s good to listen to Stevens optimistic — even when the music is aware of issues will finish, it relishes within the acquainted pangs and candy, harp-accompanied pains.
‘Tonya Harding’ — Tonya Harding (2017)
This stand-alone single was introduced with a disclaimer: no, it’s not a tie-in with I, Tonya. Stevens provided it to them, however they ‘couldn’t place it’ — watching the movie, it’s not arduous to see why.
Gentler than something in that biopic, Stevens’ ‘Tonya Harding’ is a return to Stevens’ empathetic character research of US figures that littered his early albums. He narrates the determine skater’s rise and fall with heat, calling her ‘my good friend’, an ‘American princess’ and a ‘shining American star’ with out irony.
Stevens launched the music in two variations — a glistening, cinematic model ‘in D main’ and a stripped-back, piano led ballad ‘in Eb main’. In each, he sings to her immediately, explaining the parable however reaching the particular person — creating an understated music that quietly assaults the way in which America feeds on scandal and fame.
‘America’ — The Ascension (2020)
The slight disgust that tinges ‘Tonya Harding’ has been unleashed on The Ascension, an album constructed round a disdain for not simply Trump’s America, however the America at all times beneath.
Lead single ‘America’ — a 12-minute self-described “protest music towards the illness of American tradition” — was first written again in 2014, however didn’t fairly match on Carrie & Lowell. In 2020, it takes on a extra pressing tone, however the illness has lengthy been there.
In traditional Stevens vogue, the music speaks to an ambiguous ruler/lover determine, the core message “don’t do to me what you probably did to America”. He’s a damaged believer — in contrast to a lot of his different epics, there is no such thing as a optimism right here, even with the sing-along refrain or symphonic magnificence. There’s simply vacancy, laid naked: the music (and album) bleed into ambiance, trailing off for an anti-climatic finish.
‘Video Recreation’ — The Ascension (2020)
The Ascension is nearer to The Age Of Adz than any of Stevens’ different work, however he’s finished with the whimsy. As an alternative of Royal Robertson’s mad prophecies, he’s taken inspiration from what at first is a seemingly unlikely supply: Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, subsequent’, a music he admired for balancing so many complicated feelings without delay with out simplifying them.
Simplicity isn’t Stevens’ calling card, however The Ascension has him leaning into platitudes and pop clichés in his lyrics, as if reaching in direction of a standard (hopefully transcendent) denominator. ‘Gimme some sugar’, ‘inform me you like me’, make me a proposal I can’t refuse’ — in his voice, together with his vagrant-electronica, they change into pleads.
‘Video Recreation’ stands out as one thing stronger: a refusal to play, even when, considerably paradoxically, it’s simply Stevens’ most typical ‘pop’ music but. Choosing up inspiration from one other of the previous decade’s greatest pop songs, Stevens makes use of video video games as a imprecise illustration of many ills. In contrast to Lana, he’s doing it to an 808, coding his personal creation.
Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension is out now through Asthmatic Kitty.
Jared Richards is a workers author at Music Junkee, and freelance author who has written for The Huge Situation, The Guardian and extra. He’s on Twitter.