It was in 2006 when I first got a slice of American multi-intrumentalist Sufjan Stevens’ unique music (thanks to my college roommate for sharing). Back then, I only knew three of his songs (“Chicago”, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”, and the “Henney Buggy Band”), and yet this limited exposure was enough to keep his name etched in my brain (probably because of his non-conformist sound). Four years later, I would subsconsciously google his name in search for a soothing companion to my writing tasks. I found the musical texture of his other songs impressive, but other than that, all is rubbish.
I first stumbled upon his album “Run Rabbit Run” (released 2009), a collection of songs infused with rich strings. Actually the album was a rehash of an earlier album (“Enjoy Your Rabbit,” 2002). Track titles are based on the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, save for the “Year of Our Lord,” a crescendo-decresendo play on strings.
The next album I got into, “Illinois” (released 2005), contains a set of instrument-rich songs with references to Sufjan’s personal life. Actually, the album’s liner notes enumerated the musical instruments:
“SUFJAN STEVENS plays the following instruments: acoustic guitar, piano, wurlitzer, electric bass, drum kit, electric guitar, oboe, Miriam’s alto saxophone, Summin’s flute, Daniel’s banjo and/or Matt’s banjo (depending on which one was in tune), Shara’s glockenspiel, Laura’s rickety accordion, a rented vibraphone, various recorders (Sufjan owns the tenor, soprano, and sopranino, but he borrowed Monique’s alto), a Casiotone MT-70, sleigh bells, shakers, tambourine, triangle, and a Baldwin electric church organ. Oh Lord, help us!”
(A piece of “Chicago”)
Included in the album is “Chicago,” an introspective take on one’s faith and mistakes but whose deeper meanings are still out there for debate. Most, if not all, of Sufjan’s songs are actually like this, dwelling on abstractions laced with personal stories. He obviously prefers the obscure, the unseen, the intangible inasmuch as he nurtures unconditional faith for the Almighty God. As a progressive materialist, this is certainly the part that I don’t like about his songs.
Take the case of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL,” a cut from the same album:
When the revenant came down
We couldn’t imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon*
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
Oh, history involved itself
Mysterious shade that took its form
Or what it was, incarnation
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes
(“Lebanon” in this songs refers to a place in Illinois, not the Middle East country)
In the same album, Sufjans has a song titled “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament.” The song is purely instrumental, no substance whatsoever. There is really nothing tangible in the melodramatic blare of horns interspersed with vibraphone/synths. This is despite certain observations that the Rock River Valley is known for registering a very high unemployment rate.
Another song with reference to workers titled “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” released in an earlier album (Michigan, 2003) also makes little sense. If not for the somber piano play, I wouldn’t be listening to it several times.
The problem with Sufjan is that he is using the harsh realities of the present as launchpad for “musical postmodern.” In other words, he mentions the common problems of the working class but stop shorts of offering or hinting any sympathy or support. Instead, he trivializes the whole issue with a musical score which sounds very different from the agonies of the subject (the American working class).
Actually, this (re)discovery and eventual preoccupation were for the spur-of-the-moment craving for queer musical form, not so much for Sufjan’s philosophy and lyrical abstraction. Listening to him was like eating watermelon: Eat the red juicy part, throw the inner rind and seeds.