Sufjan Stevens

(Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Sun Came (2000), 6/10
Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001), 5.5/10
Michigan (2003), 6.5/10
Seven Swans (2004), 5.5/10
Illinois (2005), 7.5/10
Songs for Christmas (2007), 2/10
All Delighted People (2010), 6/10
The Age of Adz (2010), 6.5/10
Carrie & Lowell (2015), 6/10

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, although 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 meditation. 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 tone (All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands for banjo and polyphonic backing vocals, the jazzy shuffle Sister), 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 Transfiguration, 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 minimalist repetition.

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, eventually overflowed 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 country. 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, that merges 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 on Michigan. 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.

His discography accumulated mediocre albums: the rarities of Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006), the 100 Songs for Christmas (2007-16), Run Rabbit Run (2009), which was Enjoy Your Rabbit as performed by the Osso string quartet, and The BQE (Asthmatic Kitty, 2009), the result of a commission 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.

In 2012 Stevens traveled around the world with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner to perform their project "Planetarium".

Musically, Carrie & Lowell (2015), an autobiographical concept album dedicated to his late mother and to his stepfather, returned him to his folk roots and to acoustic instruments (mostly just the guitar). It stands as a cathartic experience after the orchestral orgy of Illinois and the electronica of The Age of Adz. Lullabies such as Death with Dignity (the standout), Carrie & Lowell and Eugene concoct the gentle tone of early Donovan and the sweet harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel. The electronic breeze that blows through the hypnotic and enchanted Fourth of July (the second standout) and its piano carillon are the most that Stevens is willing to inject in these tender elegies. The metronomic ticking of the piano marks the tempo of the religious hymn John My Beloved. While the music is the exact opposite of "groundbreaking", one has to give him credit that not many singer-songwriters have been able to express their most personal feelings with such clarity and nakedness.

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(Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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