After playing in Michigan's band Marzuki (which released two albums),
multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens moved to New York
and recorded his first solo album, Sun Came (Asthmatic Kitty, 2000).
The exotic overtones of A Winner Needs a Wand led a parade of intimate
lo-fi vignettes (Demetrius, Dumb I Sound, Happy Birthday,
A Loverless Bed) that sounded original without being revolutionary,
a few experiments (SuperSexyWoman, Rice Pudding) let it be known
that he was more than a storyteller.
Enjoy Your Rabbit (Asthmatic Kitty, 2001) introduced a completely
different musician. A concept about the animals of the Chinese Zodiac,
it sounded more like an experiment in electronic music than a bard's
It was mood music, somewhat emotional but hardly narrative.
Some of the vignettes of industrial and concrete music were successful
at creating chaotic and quasi-symphonic clangor
(Year of the Monkey,
the 13-minute Year of the Horse).
The minimalist repetition and dramatic crescendo of the eight-minute Year of the Rat,
the steady pounding of Year of the Rooster,
the alien raga of the nine-minute Year of the Dragon
were the populist version of the avantgarde of three decades earlier.
Despite being mostly childish and self-indulgent,
this was Stevens' equivalent of
Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.
Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre, 2004), released only three years after
being recorded, is a pensive album that returns to his debut's introspective
(All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands for
banjo and polyphonic backing vocals, the jazzy shuffle
slowly soaring in a gospel-like hymn)
but mainly focuses on
the religious themes that permeate his entire career
(the bizarre crescendo of Seven Swans,
the brief We Won't Need Legs to Stand for organ and breathless vocals,
the upbeat march-like He Woke Me Up Again and
the whispered, Saint Francis-inspired To Be Alone with You).
Musically, the most daring track is
In the Devil's Territory, propelled by rapid raga-like strumming and
The meticulously crafted concept album Michigan (Sounds Familyre, 2003 -
Asthmatic Kitty, 2004), the first of a projected series of 50,
introduced yet another musician: a sophisticated arranger that made
Rufus Wainwright look like an amateur.
He was still the painter of mood music, as evidenced in the
desolate piano elegy Flint,
in the martial ode of The Upper Peninsula (like a subdued version of Neil Young's Harvest),
in the naive Donovan-esque fairy tale
Holland and in the tender country waltz Romulus,
(besides the tinkling ambient vignette Tahquamenon Falls);
but the baroque undercurrents of
All Good Naysayers Speak Up, that sounds like a folkish version of Yes's prog-rock,
and of They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black, that builds to a climax
by applying techniques of jazz rhythm and minimalist repetition,
into the orchestral pop of For the Widows in Paradise, that is kept in country & western mode by a background radiation of insistent banjo strumming,
and in the jovial vocal-harmony merry-go-round of Say Yes! to M!ch!gan!.
Stevens' tour de force takes him in all kinds of directions:
the eight-minute Detroit Lift Up Your Weary Head, a failed attempt at Canterbury-style prog-rock imbued with ideas of symphonic minimalism,
medieval street dance and marching-band fanfares;
the nine-minute trance-like Oh God Where Are You Now, perhaps an attempt at a psychedelic raga of sorts although it remains two frail and superficial;
and the seven-minute late-night gentle bluesy mantra Vito's Ordination Song.
It was a very ambitious attempt at a sort of hyper-fusion grass-roots music,
although it often sounded aimless and redundant.
Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005)
was another monster of production and arrangement techniques, entirely scored
and arranged by Stevens in person. The 22 tracks make up a song cycle
that, even more than Michigan, reflects the post-2001 mood of the
The concept boasts two complementary overtures, the pastoral
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland and the mocking orchestral
crescendo of The Black Hawk War (subtitled "How to Demolish an Entire
Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning"),
the former a mystical statement and the latter a political statement.
This album offers a better reading of Canterbury-style prog-rock in the
frantic fanfare of Come On Feel the Illinoise, featuring the double
counterpoint of festive Caribbean percussion and of a frigid female choir;
and in the seven-minute The Tallest Man the Broadest Shoulders,
Lol Coxhill's "welfare state" street music and
Soft Machine's chamber jazz-rock
towards an ecstatic apotheosis.
Minimalist repetition is employed in clever doses in the otherwise pastoral
The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!.
In general, there is a higher mastery of techniques and constructs.
The songs are generally longer, although not necessarily more complex, than
As a songwriter Stevens falters when he dresses up trivial melodies
(the somber ode to a serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr,
Jacksonville, that evokes again Neil Young's Harvest, although transformed in an orchestral crescendo),
but succeeds when he turns the simple refrain into an emotional center of mass,
as in the luxuriant choral mantra of Chicago and in the multi-layered
cantata of They Are Night Zombies; or even in the bare haunting
piano elegy The Seer's Tower.
His production tricks occasionally work wonders, like the
wall of sound with children choir that envelops
The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.
In general, however, they don't amount to much.
The real pulsing core is represented by the mystical strand that pulls
everything together, and eventually overflows in the closing minimalist
trance of Out of Egypt into the Great Laugh of Mankind, a sort of
liturgical version of
of Terry Riley's In C.
Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006) collects rarities.
Songs for Christmas (2007) proved the fundamental mediocrity of the
Run Rabbit Run (2009) was Enjoy Your Rabbit as performed by
the Osso string quartet.
The BQE (Asthmatic Kitty, 2009)
was the result of a commissio to create a film and a composition about a bridge.
The eight-song EP All Delighted People (Asthmatic Kitty, 2010) features
the apocalyptic All Delighted People, that mutates from
easy-listening pop into a tragic oratorio and then into a cacophonous
choral apotheosis and finally into a magniloquent symphonic finale,
and the 17-minute metaphysical meditation Djohariah, a rather clumsy
idea that features an unusually loud guitar jam and convulsed combinations of
horns and voices.
If From The Mouth Of Gabriel merely revisits his choral obsessions,
Arnika introduces a new variant on his mantra-like songs.
But fundamentally the rest of the EP
sounds like a dustbin of compositions that didn't
quite deserve to be released.
The same vice of self-indulgent lengthy compositions detracts from the grand
ideas of The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty, 2010) now that Stevens is
ready to adopt dissonant electronica and mangled beats. It almost feels like a
return to Enjoy Your Rabbit.
The industrial pastiche of Too Much pairs these new elements with
the traditional Stevens fare: choirs, horn fanfares, and cycles.
The result is a highly schizophrenic instrumental coda.
The electronic touches are instead quite irrelevant in
the eight-minute Age Of Adz, a battlefield of
magniloquent symphonic surges,
Prince-like wailing, and
thundering Jim Steinman-esque masses of sound.
The mellow poptronica I Walked and the
robotic ballet Get Real Get Right stand as mere intermezzi on the
way to the massive centerpiece (actually, closer).
The 25-minute Impossible Soul alternates
romantic pop crooning, intimidating walls of sound, subdued
psychodrama, choral narratives, orchestral counterpoint a` la disco-music,
and collages of sound effects.
Just like on the preceding EP, there is too much half-baked fluff on this album.
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