Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sufjan Stevens - The Big Bang

Sufjan Stevens (b. 1975) is a singer-songwriter living in Brooklyn, NY (like, who isn't?). A preoccupation with epic concepts has motivated two state records (Michigan and Illinois), a collection of sacred and biblical songs (Seven Swans), an electronic album for the animals of the Chinese zodiac (Enjoy Your Rabbit), two Christmas box sets (Songs for Christmas, vol. 1-5 and Silver & Gold, vol. 6-10), and a programmatic tone poem for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (The BQE). In 2010 Sufjan released an EP (All Delighted People) and the LP The Age of Adz, a collection of songs partly inspired by the artist Royal Robertson. His most recent release was Carrie & Lowell from 2015.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Sufjan grew up in the chilly reaches of the peninsula. A self-taught musician, Stevens created elaborate sonatas on a toy Casio, and by college was proficient on the oboe, recorder, banjo, guitar, vibraphone, bass, drums, and piano. He bought a 4-track tape cassette recorder and painstakingly composed 90-minute concept albums for The Nine Planets, The 12 Apostles, and The Four Humors (that's Blood (Air), Phlegm (Water), Yellow Bile (Fire) and Black Bile (Earth) (how's that for a concept?). He read William Blake, William Wordsworth, and William Faulkner, all the Williams and during his last semester at Hope College, he produced his debut release A Sun Came on Asthmatic Kitty Records, a start-up label Stevens initiated with his step-father, Lowell. A thousand copies were pressed and shipped to a black hole somewhere in the universe.

Sufjan then moved to New York City, living Boho style while attending The New School for Social Research in an MFA program. There he met Jhumpa Lahiri, harassed Philip Gourevitch on the telephone, and tried unsuccessfully to complete an epic collection of stories and sketches about backwoods Christian Fundamentalists, Amway salesmen and crystal healers, all set in a small rural town in Michigan. Funny, no one seemed interested. Sufjan went back to the 4-track, tired of "Words, words, words," and set out to complete his paean to the Chinese Zodiac.  Ceaselessly inspired, Sufjan dropped off a copy to New York's Other Music Records, only to find it in the cutouts section two weeks later. Write songs, Lowell insisted. Write something (anything) with words and melodies.

Stevens went back to the books, mainly his own unwritten one. Taking bits and scraps of unfinished stories, character sketches and plot lines, Sufjan began to arrange his misshapen fiction into the bold mechanics of song, making friends with line breaks, meter, and rhyme scheme leading him to odd melodies, unusual time signatures, and a litany of aural soundscapes. The result was a lushly orchestrated road trip through the backwoods of The Great Lake State, from motor-city to the beaches of Lake Superior. "That's more like it!" Lowell said (I'm only surmising).

Sufjan and Lowell found a distributor, a publicist, a booking agent, a make-up artist, a mime. Things were looking good. People lent an eager ear. The critics lowered their knives and their critical brow. Other Music put it in New Releases, top shelf! Once the clang and clamor of success subsided, Sufjan's musical inquiry fell fast on the Land of Lincoln. During the winter of 2004, Sufjan spent four months in isolation, reading books and biographies, memorizing the poems of Carl Sandburg, laughing and shuddering through Saul Bellow's novels. He uncovered police blogs and books on tape. He solicited correspondence from old friends, Illinoisans once lost or estranged; he studied travel guides; he quizzed chat rooms; he made stuff up. All research, he decided, begins with your imagination and with your intuition, relying heavily on the convictions of the heart. During those long winter hand-clapping, piano-playing, drum-rolling months, Sufjan's heart began to expand, leaving its fist-shaped mark on a series of songs that not so much pay homage to the Prairie State, but rack and rend its characters through potato farms, steel factories, street fairs, marching parades, convoluted rivers, and centuries past and present. When all was said and done, Sufjan took the road Springsteen took with Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

His masterwork and most accessible LP (despite its overwhelming bleakness - it's like reading The Fault in Our Stars) is 2015's Carrie & LowellIt's a little odd to recommend the LP to people because it's just not fun, but one just cannot stop coming back to it. It's unapologetic honesty feels so extremely personal that I admire Sufjan Stevens' bravery in opening up so much to strangers about his grief over his mother's death and the dark period in his life that accompanied it. As much as the album seems to be so much a window into Sufjan's own singular experiences, it also puts an emphasis on the uncomfortable truth that like Sufjan's mother and someday like Sufjan himself, "we're all going to die." It's something we all have to come to terms with; we knew it before we listened to this album and it will still be there when we put the album away. Even if Carrie & Lowell does little to soften the blow, it at least offers us company. Though the songs are quiet and bare, the vulnerable quality of their delivery and the heaviness of their subjects makes the entire album feel like something much bigger than it is.

Since then, the eclectic Stevens has done it all, from show tunes to vaudeville; until the next LP when we'll get something completely different. Oh yeah, that would be Planetarium, a concept group/LP with cohorts Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner (of The National) and James McAlister. "I knew I wanted to write songs. I didn't want it to be like art music. So I thought that's what I would bring, is just the lyrics. And at first it didn't have lyrics, and we were naming everything based on astrology - we were just using our kind of horoscope-like concepts. And so I was thinking about astrology and then I started writing the lyrics and it started to shape into songs about the planets. So then I just decided to go with that. I mean lyrically it's a word salad. Half the time I had no idea what I was saying. It was just like I was just grabbing." Sufjan went on to say, "There's a sort of beautiful perfect order to life on earth that's so mysterious and so profound. And yet as people we really fuck it up. We're so dysfunctional, and we seek guidance from the exterior world, from the heavens, to help us understand our purpose here and to sort of create a sense of order."

Animation Still for "Venus"

My daughter (Hi, Mimi) and I had the fortune this past Tuesday to see the foursome (plus violin and viola) at the Brooklyn Bandshell in Prospect Park. Despite the ethereal nature of the music, this was an incredible outdoor soundscape. The crowd encapsulated every hipster within a hundred miles; the food offered, not just your overpriced dog and beer that smelled like Joy for Dishes, but a tomato/watermelon/quinoi salad with basil and Stella Artois. The food reference merely a glimpse into the hip ambiance. The night included the whole of Planetarium (minus "Sun") plus an encore of "Over the Rainbow" and Bowie's "Space Oddity." The concert was short, sweet, to the point and a stunning ensemble of creativity. Interestingly, my daughter (Hi, Mimi) is the real Sufjan fan, while I've followed Nico Muhly for the past several years. The foursome was able to capture the eclectic genre as cleanly and expertly as David Sylvian, Ryiuchi Sakamoto or Harold Budd, though far more accessibly. The night's highlights "Jupiter" and the LPs hit-like "Mercury" emphasizes the fact that although AM may obsess on years like 1967 or 1972, and despite all the Disney girls and lame one up rap LPs by a hundred rappers named "Lil," music is as good as it ever was.