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Sufjan Stevens is a Master of Crafting Poignant Jams That Won't Bring You to Tears 

Wednesday, Aug 3 2016

Sufjan Stevens may not be an angel, but he knows how to channel the celestial.

You'll hear it in his lo-fi folk-rock 2000 debut, A Sun Came; in Enjoy Your Rabbit, his 14-track electronic reimagining of the Chinese zodiac; and in the lush orchestral majesty of his two state-inspired albums, Michigan and Illinois. Never one to shy away from exploring new sounds, the 41-year-old Stevens imbues his music with a fragile poignancy, mainly with an immaculate voice that unites even his most eclectic compositions.

Best known for "Chicago" — a single off 2005's Illinois that was featured in the Oscar-nominated film Little Miss Sunshine — Stevens is an artist unafraid to release 20-minute songs or a mixed-medium exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Stevens doesn't push the boundaries of music simply to push them, but rather, it seems, because his ideas are simply that grand and formless.

When Michigan dropped in 2003, Stevens told various media outlets that it would be the first of 50 albums in a project that would encompass every state in the U.S. The project might never come to fruition — to date, Stevens has only made two state albums — and even he admits the declaration was something of a publicity stunt.

But so what? It's the thought that counts — and the effort that he's already put into the project. In Michigan, Stevens combines the frenzied sounds of glockenspiels, oboes, and banjos into 15 tracks that simultaneously capture the spirit of the place while also working perfectly out of context as standalone tracks. Illinois, which features subjects as varied as UFOs and serial killer John Wayne Gacy, spawned a number of Steven's most well-loved tracks — like "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" and "Chicago" — and continued his lush and varied experimentations with orchestral instruments and bosom storytelling.

Not to be forgotten are Stevens' Christmas albums, comprised of several limited-run EPs that together total 100 songs. Some were re-imagined classics, while others were original compositions. Silly and joyous numbers like "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" contrast with somber reflections of the holiday season like "Sister Winter" and "Christmas in the Room." Through standard carols and inventive derivations, Stevens managed to find an immense range of emotions for a day often written off as corporate and one-dimensional.

But it was something much simpler that spawned Carrie & Lowell, one of his most critically revered albums to date. In a review for Pitchfork, Brandon Stosuy called it "his best," while Metacritic lists it as the second most-highly rated album of 2015, behind Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.

Named for his mother and stepfather, the sparse and startlingly personal Carrie & Lowell is a meditation on Carrie's passing and a deviation from the opulent electronic sound that comprised his previous record, 2010's The Age of Adz. Songs like "Death with Dignity," "All of Me Wants All of You," and "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" are steeped in quiet elegance. Like the aural equivalent of a Super 8 home movie, Stevens traces his childhood and the recent pain of losing his mother.

Before you worry that seeing Stevens live is a weepy, morose affair, know this: There will be costumes, and confetti isn't off the table either. Though Stevens performs his songs with the reverence they deserve, his stage persona is much sillier. You could say he's just as eager to share anecdotes of his recent trip to the thrift store as he is to bring the crowd to tears. He also dons angel wings at many of his performances, a fashion move that could be viewed as grandiose, but in reality is just a guy with a guitar who thinks it's fun to wear wings while he plays.

In early July, a commenter on Reddit shared that he found an unreleased Stevens album in a dumpster outside of the office of Stevens' record label, Asthmatic Kitty in Brooklyn, and released it on the internet. Titled Stalker, the liner notes reveal it was recorded in 1998, meaning it precedes Stevens' official debut by two years. The user — later identified as Dallas actor and musician Marc Rebillet — told Stereogum that he found the album around 2014.

For many, a new Stevens record — or, more accurately, a new old record — is cause for celebration. Unlike many acts today, one never knows if Stevens will release more music, or worse, unexpectedly announce his retirement from the industry. He is an artist beholden to no conventions, and to get 14 new tracks of his work out of the blue is, to borrow one of his song titles, Christmas in July.

But it's likely Stevens never intended for those songs to be heard, as evidenced by a comment on Reddit from John Beeler, a rep for Asthmatic Kitty. "I would rather you not share someone's music without their permission; Sufjan or anyone else's," he wrote. "If it was in the trash, there was a reason."

Why he never released it, we do not yet know. But its placement in the garbage can indicates it wasn't meant for public consumption. Still, Stalker is out there for those who seek it.

In the end, one man's trash may be many others' pleasure.


About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.


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