Art Works Blog

On Sufjan Stevens: A Love Letter

Goldenrod and the 4H stone

The things I brought you when I found out

You had cancer of the bone.

- from “Casimir Pulaski Day” on the album, Illinois (2005) 

When I heard this verse ten years ago, my heart stopped. It was like a nosedive into a cold lake, an icicle to the spine. Unexpected paralysis. The voice and the lyrics shocked my system, jerking me out of my own head and into the present moment. Thus began, in the span of about twenty-four seconds, my love affair with multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard his music, but it was arguably the first time I'd really listened. And it wasn’t just the weight of those devastating words, it was the purity of the voice that delivered them through my headphones into my head and into my heart, a voice which can hover somewhere between ghostly and angelic whisper.

Given his lyrical deftness, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Sufjan, in Persian, translates to “comes with the sword.” To me, his voice recalls Uma Thurman’s handcrafted Japanese steel in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1. It’s sharp and durable and it can quickly cut to the core. Take this verse from “Holland” on Greetings from Michigan – The Great Lake State (2003).  

Fall in love and fall apart.                                                                                                        

Things will end before they start.

Sometimes when art touches you, you insert yourself into the book, the painting, the song—you apply it to your own life. There’s something transformative in taking a painful personal experience (a death, a break-up) or a horrific historical event (read: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”) and turning that story into art. Breathing light into the darkness, if you will. That’s part of the draw for me to Stevens. I get the sense that—no matter the subject or whether the production is stripped-down or lush—he’s chasing the authentic transference of an experience, evidenced by his heartfelt narratives and ambitious compositions.

Above and beyond the heart and the ache, there’s an unadulterated beauty in his evolving oeuvre and that beauty is a delicate balance of joy and pain. I first discovered this dynamic balance in the orchestral supersong, “Chicago,” also from the album, Illinois. The lyrical and melodic ping pong match throughout covers such an incredibly wide spectrum of feeling.

You came to take us

All things go, all things go

To recreate us

All things grow, all things grow

In one breath, I’m on the edge of tears and in the next, I’m empowered and weightless, ready to base jump off the Sears Tower. Tucked within the glassy glockenspiel and the quivering strings, and buried between the horns and the rich chorus of voices, there’s an ecstatic release that tempers the quieter, introspective lyrics. His later work, too, is sometimes infused with this passionate rise-and-fall catharsis. Take the 25-minute epic, “Impossible Soul,” from 2010’s Age of AdzAbout fourteen minutes in, after a slow build, the tempo shifts and suddenly my body is moving.

It's a long life, better pinch yourself

Get your face together, better roll along

It's a long life, better pinch yourself

Put your face together, better stand up straight

It's a long life, only one last chance

Couldn't get much better, do you wanna dance?

…Boy, we can do much more together; It's not so impossible...

It feels futile to try to capture the beauty in art you love. After all, words are, cough, futile devices. There’s something to be said for simply letting the art be, abstract or concrete or however you choose to define it. And with 11 studio albums, involvement with other bands like The National and Sisyphus, and contributions to compilations like Red Hot’s homage to Arthur Russell, it seems impossible to fully unpack Stevens’ rich musical output. For example, the last time I saw him in 2013 he joined forces with musician Bryce Dessner and composer Nico Muhly to present gorgeously wrought songs inspired by the solar system. 

In my foolhardy attempt to capture the essence of his music’s effect on me, I have to say a couple more things about Age of Adz, a remarkable sonic departure from his earlier work and an album I revisit often. With filtered vocals and wholly original sound experimentation, Stevens explores the otherworldly art of schizophrenic artist and self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson. Complicated song structures aside, the enigmatic lyrics in “Vesuvius” illustrate the way he conjures Royal’s fantastical world. Lastly, I've got to call attention to the imagination that powered his performance at NYC’s Beacon Theater in 2010. For starters, Sufjan and his magnetic band of merry makers were clad in neon electrical tape and glowing spacesuits threaded with LED lights. The sound. The light. The visuals. The color. Suddenly, I had a sense what having a vision might be like. I still rank it as the best show I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, his reach is far and wide. And it’s within this reach, this boundary-pushing, this not settling, that I find my respect and admiration for him continue to grow. I could prattle on forever about other songs and arrangements that have struck me dumb, but I’ll stop here. It’s not so impossible.

I’m just happier knowing Sufjan is out in the world, cutting through and rising above the white noise with his weapons of choice—his voice, his imagination, a banjo, a piano, an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a vibraphone, a Casiotone MT-70, and and …… (this list, like my praise waxing, could go on and on).  

This piece is part of an occasional series in which we ask NEA staff and others to talk about an artist whose work they deeply admire.

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