One of the most consistently fascinating musicians to emerge in the 21st century, Sufjan Stevens is nominally an alt-folk artist, with his hushed, vulnerable vocals and predominance of acoustic instruments. But that’s underselling his talents – he’s also a sophisticated arranger, especially on the more ambitious pieces on 2005’s Illinois, and he’s also dabbled in electronically based music, notably on 2010’s The Age of Adz. He’s named classical works, notably Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, as influential, and there’s clearly far more to Steven’s oeuvre than straightforward folk music.
Stevens also gained attention early in his career by announcing plans to make an album for every state of the USA – after making albums for Michigan and Illinois, he later admitted it was a promotional gimmick. While he’s releasing albums to a mainstream audience, Stevens identifies as a Christian, and his faith permeates his lyrics. I assumed that Steven’s best years were behind him after Illinois, but he came back with 2015’s introspective masterpiece Carrie and Lowell, a strong contender for album of the year in many music publications.
I haven’t covered Stevens’ first two albums (2000’s A Sun Came and 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit) – I’ve never heard them, and they’re generally overlooked in favour of his later work. Outside the studio albums reviewed below, Stevens has also released a lot of other work including a box-set of Christmas music, an instrumental multimedia project (The BQE), and an album of Illinois out-takes (The Avalanche).
Sufjan Stevens Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Carrie and Lowell
Overlooked Gem: Seven Swans
A Sun Came
1999, not rated
Stevens plays fourteen different instruments on his debut. He states that it includes “traditional pop music, medieval instrumentation with Middle Eastern inflections, tape loops, digital samples, literary vocals, manic percussion, woodwinds, sitar, amp distortion and Arabic chants.” It’s more than an hour long.
Enjoy Your Rabbit
2001, not rated
Stevens’ second album is a song-cycle inspired by the Chinese Zodiac. It’s based around electronic music, a style Stevens would return to on several subsequent records.
The first in a series of fifty proposed albums chronicling every state of America, and Stevens’ third album overall, Michigan chronicles his native state. Accordingly, it’s full of malaise and blue collar battlers, although songs like ‘Vito’s Ordination Song’ and ‘Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Restore! Rebuild! Reconsider!)’ are tinged with some hope. Michigan sets out the basis of Stevens’ basic styles for his next few albums; he’s generally either delivering acoustic ballads, delivered with banjo or piano accompaniment, or overblown epics that channel touches of jazz and progressive rock.
For Michigan, it’s the acoustic pieces that are most effective; songs like ‘Romulus’, ‘The Upper Peninsula’ and ‘For the Widows in Paradise (For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti)’ are the standouts, infused with compassion. But the epics aren’t as convincing as they’d become on his next few albums – his arrangements would become bolder and more memorable.
It’s very good, but Michigan does drag in some places and it could stand some trimming – if you’re new to Stevens I’d suggest jumping to one of the subsequent albums first and coming back to this later.
After Michigan suggested possibilities for both gentle acoustic songs and intricate epics, Seven Swans is firmly focused on Stevens’ material side. Thematically, it’s dealing with more blatantly Christian subject matter, like the “he is the Lord” climax to the title track.
Opening track ‘All of the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands’ is gorgeous, with a gently building arrangement that gradually adds piano, rhythmic ethereal backing vocals, and percussion to the sparkling banjo that anchors the song. Some of the other instrumentation used is equally offbeat – a Theremin powers the later phases of ‘In The Devil’s Territory’, while wheezy organs and choirs are also used to great effect, while ‘Sister’ quietens down from soaring rock to a gentle acoustic track. ‘That Dress Looks Nice On You’ is catchy in its low key arrangement, while the title track and ‘The Transfiguration’ bring the record to a triumphant conclusion.
Seven Swans is a terrific record; Sufjan wouldn’t make another straightforward folk record until 2015’s even better Carrie and Lowell.
After the excellent sideline of Seven Swans, Stevens moved one state south of Michigan to Illinois. While the two albums are similar is style, this time around it’s a lot more confident, and the more overblown pieces come alive in a way that their counterparts on Michigan never did. Stylistically, Illinois covers similar ground to Michigan, although it’s infused with touches of Chicago jazz, giving the state its own sense of musical identity. Despite a seventy five minute running time there’s little that needs cutting, only tailing off right at the end with a couple of experimental instrumentals, but after seventy minutes of unmitigated entertainment it’s difficult to begrudge them.
Among the introspective material, highlights include the charming piano opener ‘Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’, the paean to one of Illinois’ most notorious citizen’s ‘John Wayne Gacy’ (with the perceptive line “in my best behavior I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid”) and the honest ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, which throws around questions of inter-connected suffering, spirituality and sexuality, raising more questions than it answers. ‘Decatur’ pulls out a myriad of amusing rhymes (emancipator, alligator, debater, and aviator) and the peppy, breezy ‘Jacksonville’. Among the epics, ‘They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!’ is the standout, a string laden groove, while ‘The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Heart’ alternates between abrasive guitar and soothing balladry.
Illinois is terrific song-writing topped off by creative arrangements.
The Age of Adz
In 2009, Stevens announced that he’d never intended to complete the 50 States project, and that it was a promotional gimmick. The Age of Adz is a significant break from his previous work – lyrically, it’s more personal, with some of the songs inspired by Stevens’ experience with a debilitating viral infection in 2009. Apart from the opening track, ‘Futile Devices’, musically it explores different territory than his often acoustic albums, revisiting the electronic textures of 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, and embracing vocal effects and hip hop beats.
The change in approach is disarming at first, and the synthetic textures disguise that the album still bears a lot of Stevens’ trademarks of sophisticated arrangements and gentle emotion. Melodically, tracks like the low key ‘Vesuvius’ are very reminiscent of Stevens’ earlier work, it’s just underpinned by hip hop beats and synthesisers, instead of banjos and acoustic guitars. The most significant track is the closer, the 25 minute ‘Impossible Soul’, which Stevens describes as akin to a Woody Allen film.
At 75 minutes it drags in spots, and it’s an outlier in Sufjan Stevens’ catalogue, but Age of Adz is a fascinating record from a fascinating artist.
Carrie and Lowell
After sonically expansive material on Illinois and The Age of Adz, Carrie and Lowell is a return to the folk approach of Seven Swans. There are some subtle electronics backing up the acoustic instruments, adding depth and flavour, but the focus is on the gentle melodies and guitar. Carrie and Lowell was inspired by Stevens’ complex relationship with his troubled mother, Carrie, and the songs were written after she passed away in 2012. Like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the understated music focuses the listener’s attention on the emotionally naked and devastating lyrics.
The opening song, ‘Death With Dignity’, states “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end.” Second track ‘Should Have Known Better’ sets out both the issues (“When I was three, three maybe four/She left us at that video store”) and hope (“My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination”). He also admits his own inner turmoil and the role of his faith.
Carrie and Lowell is a beautiful, courageous album, the strongest and most focused record that Stevens has made to date.
Sufjan Stevens’ career has been largely defined by its unpredictability. Over a two decade recording career he’s bounced between gentle indie-folk, grandiose arrangements about US cities and landmarks, and creative electronica. Stevens’ latest effort, his first studio effort since 2015’s acclaimed Carrie and Lowell, is notable for its mundanity.
Stevens explained this to The Fader.
I wanted things to feel more universal and more generic, in a way. I embraced the use of cliches and catchphrases and idioms and colloquialisms. All that stuff started to like become the impetus for the songs, the meanings behind the songs. I kind of wanted to speak to the lowest common denominator. I wanted the songs to keep moving and be simple on the surface and to feel accessible in a way, as much as I’m able to do it because like even at my most poppiest, I’m a far cry from what’s being played on the radio right now. That was all really, really intentional.Sufjan Stevens, The Fader
Of Stevens’ past work, The Ascension is closest in tone to the glitchy electronica of 2010’s The Age of Adz. As with Adz, The Ascension feels lengthy, sometimes connecting emotionally but not musically enticing enough to sustain its long running time.
Despite Stevens’ approach, songs like ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ still make an emotional connection. ‘The Ascension’ is an ambitious mini-epic that recalls the unfettered creativity of Illinois. Although it wouldn’t have fit the finished record, b-side ‘My Rajneesh’ is also notable as one of the most fascinating records
One of Stevens’ weaker efforts, but he’s always worthy of respect for following his muse; hopefully his muse brings out a classic next time around.
Ten Favourite Sufjan Stevens Songs
Casimir Pulaski Day
Should Have Known Better
No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands
The Upper Peninsula
That Dress Looks Nice On You
Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step Mother!
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
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