“Five ways to listen to Sufjan Stevens” is part of an ongoing series that provides accessible and substantive approaches to the work of artists with large and varied discographies. So here it is: five Sufjan Stevens albums, a song from each, and a suggested approach to the music—a way to listen encapsulated by a single word.
The Album: Michigan (2003)
The Song: “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)”
The Word: Maximalist
Sufjan Stevens’ music, with its frequent deployment of repetitive melodic and rhythmic loops, has often been compared to the minimalist music of composers such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass. While it may be minimalist in musico-technical terms, the overarching aesthetic of much of Stevens’ music could only be described as maximalist.
Take, for example, “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” from 2003’s Michigan. The track begins inconspicuously enough, with bells playing a short and simple repeated pattern. They soon fade into the background, however, as more percussion joins in, then piano and brass, then the drums, and finally an ensemble of oboes (yes, oboes!). Before we’ve even reached the thirty second mark, a densely textured groove has been established, bursting with energy, color, and rhythmic vitality. Should we throw a chorus in there too (2:36)? Sure, why not! For Stevens, more is more.
Less is more, too. That is to say: the “less” of minimalism (a relatively economical set of musical materials, repeated many times over) is ultimately made to serve the broader maximalist aesthetic, as in the opening of “Oh Detroit.” Plus, all of that looping and repetition builds tension, which is more often than not released in a climactic moment, as in the song’s wonderfully cacophonous zenith (4:18). And the best part? For listeners, Stevens’ maximalist taste means that his music is eternally renewable—you will never run out of new details to discover.
More songs like this: “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” “Chicago,” and “Jacksonville” from Illinois; “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)” from Michigan
The Album: The Age of Adz (2010)
The Song: “Too Much”
The Word: Electr(on)ic
Fairly or not, we often demand consistency from the artists we love. But musicians are people, and people are notoriously inconsistent. So it really should not have come as a surprise when The Age of Adz failed to replicate the sound of Stevens’ previous work. The album, Stevens’ “going electric” moment, was largely well-received, but some listeners lamented the shift in style.
And who could blame them? The electronic bleeps and bloops that populate The Age of Adz do occasionally feel out of place, and it’s hard to watch Stevens perform “Too Much” on Jimmy Fallon’s show without thinking that he was experimenting with something that never quite clicked. Listen close, though, and you will hear in “Too Much” many of the trademarks of Stevens’ style, in particular the earnest, aspirational lyrics (“If I was a different man, if I had blood in my eyes / I could have read of your heart, I could have read of your mind”), boppy choruses, and ecstatic cacophony that epitomize Stevens’ more upbeat tracks.
People change, but people stay the same too. For all of its eccentricities, The Age of Adz is still a Sufjan Stevens album, and “Too Much” really is a quintessentially Sufjan Stevens song. All that’s missing is the banjo.
The Album: Songs for Christmas (2006)
The Song: “Angels We Have Heard On High”
The Word: Interlude
A 46-second, all-bells rendition of a Christmas carol may seem like an odd choice in this context—and that’s sort of the point. Stevens’ mid-2000s albums are bursting with interludes, postludes, trifles, and bagatelles, and these are the tracks that often get squeezed out of the repertory via playlists, shuffle mode, and best-of articles.
That’s a shame, because many of them are miniature masterpieces. “Angels We Have Heard On High,” for example, offers a fresh take on a tired Christmas standard, its pulsating brightness convincingly evoking its celestial subjects. “Angels,” like many of these short tracks, offers a moment of wordless reprise between longer tracks—the beautiful “Alanson, Crooked River” and “Tahquamenon Falls” from Michigan serve a similar purpose. At other times, half a minute is plenty long enough to prepare the entrance of a new song or sardonically comment on the one that’s just ended, as on Illinois’ “A conjunction of drones simulating the way in which Sufjan Stevens has an existential crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze” and “Let’s hear that string part again, because I don’t think they heard it all the way out in Bushnell,” respectively (as for those long track titles—talk about maximalist!).
So the next time you decide to cue up some Sufjan Stevens, do yourself a favor and listen to Michigan, Illinois, or Songs for Christmas all the way through from start to finish. They may never get top billing, but these albums’ interludes are worth your time.
The Album: Illinois (2005)
The Song: “Casimir Pulaski Day”
The Word: Spiritual
An old music professor of mine once told me that all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was spiritual, whether explicitly stated or not. I wonder if the same might be said of Sufjan Stevens. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of many Stevens’ songs that directly address religious topics—most of 2004’s Seven Swans and 2010’s All Delighted People EP fall into this category, not to mention Songs for Christmas and its follow-up holiday album Silver and Gold (2012). But references to spiritual topics appear across all of Stevens’ albums, and in ways that suggest that, for Stevens, the spiritual and the everyday are one and the same.
All of this is not to say that Stevens is some sort of evangelist. As David Roark argued in an excellent article on Stevens and Christian music that appeared in The Atlantic last year, his music “doesn’t alienate listeners of different beliefs,” in large part because it deals with human concerns of which spirituality is just one part. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is a song about questioning God in the face of tragedy, to be sure, but the story of that tragedy—the drawn-out death of a childhood friend—is incredibly moving regardless of the spiritual context. I, for one, am an agnostic at most, but rare are the times at which I make it through the song’s final line (“And He takes and He takes and He takes”) without feeling the onset of tears.
The Album: Carrie and Lowell (2015)
The Song: “Eugene”
The Word: Personal
“Personal” would have been just as apt a word to describe “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Indeed, while the song’s spiritual discourse is powerful, its personal significance is what makes it affecting. Likewise, for as much as I enjoy the myriad regional, cultural, and spiritual references packed into Stevens’ songs, it is the personal details that I find myself craving most.
No wonder, then, that I find 2015’s Carrie and Lowell to be Stevens’ best album to date. The album, named after Stevens’ mother and stepfather, is his most baldly personal. Esoteric references and virtuoso lyricism are replaced with simple, straightforward “I” statements. Stevens pulls no punches in describing his life in all its gory details, from the dysfunction of a relationship gone sour on “All of Me Wants All of You” (“You checked your texts while I masturbated”) to a suicide attempt on “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” (“There’s blood on that blade / Fuck me, I’m falling apart”). It isn’t all so dark, of course, and Stevens’ love for his departed mother in particular shines through in some of the album’s warmest moments.
Every song on Carrie and Lowell is excellent, each personal in its own way, but none has stuck with me quite like “Eugene.” The song, whose title refers to the summers Stevens spent in Oregon as a child, is full of memorable, poignant snapshots of life—tangled wires around a hospital bed, repeated (and seemingly failed) attempts at intimacy, and the way in which Sufjan’s swimming instructor reliably mispronounced his first name. All of this is supported by a pared-down instrumental accompaniment, the simplest on Carrie and Lowell. The song, (bitter)sweet most of the way through, turns dark at the end. After relaying the story of his mother’s death, Stevens arrives at a grim conclusion: "Now I’m drunk and afraid / Wishing the world would go away / What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?"
Then, at the point at which many songs on Carrie and Lowell drift off into extended instrumental postludes, “Eugene” closes in decidedly succinct fashion, with a few chords in the guitar and nothing more. Is this ending meant to confirm the song’s pessimistic closing lyrics, to acknowledge the futility of music-making in the face of life’s hardships? Stevens is touring this summer, so it seems he has decided that, however painful it may be, it is worth it to keep singing. Thank God (or whomever) for that.