Talent Tuesday #2 – Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens: musician, propmaster, hottie.

I’m feeling so mentally blank today. I decided I need a break from caffeine, and this is something like my first day in two weeks without a big coffee in my system. I am just barely able think coherently enough to eke out these words! Consequently, this post may read a little weak…sorry in advance…

I originally conceived my ‘Talent Tuesdays’ as a way for me to bring truly unknown acts to you, more so than under-the-radar artists who already have their own big followings. However, you’ll have to wait til next week for a truly unknown act, because….well…I just don’t have one ready this week. And I’m tired and uncaffeinated, and it’s hard to think. I want to do my unknowns justice. Stop it! You shut up!…

So…schizophrenic self-arguing aside. Many of you will probably have heard of Sufjan Stevens, but I think he’s under- the-radar enough that some won’t have. Sufjan is a giant talent from America, who I had the pleasure of seeing perform live last year. He’s a singer/songwriter who plays a variety of instruments, but plays guitar most when performing. I was familiar with Sufjan from his more acoustic songs, and below is the first song of Sufjan’s I heard (on the TV show The O.C. I know. I’m ashamed of myself):

That song tugged at my heart instantly. I fell in love with it as soon as I heard it, and it kind of became the “theme song” of a long-distance relationship I was in at the time. The lyrics were simple enough to paint a vivid picture (I’d swim across lake Michigan/I’d sell my shoes/I’d give my body to be back again/In the rest of the room/To be alone with you). Yet the words were also cryptic and unique enough that they made the listener wonder what’s going on beneath the surface (You gave your body to the lonely/They took your clothes/You gave up a wife and a family/You gave your goals/To be alone with me, you went up on the tree/I’ll never know the man who loved me). To me, in that song Sufjan must surely either be singing from a woman or a gay man’s point of view?…since he’s singing about a lover who gave up a ‘wife’ and family.. Both are interesting perspectives for him to take as a straight, male songwriter. After I heard this song, I got into more of Sufjan’s acoustic songs (eg. the banjo-driven “For the Widows in Paradise”). But I wasn’t a rabid fan yet. I had no idea he had released an album called “The Age of Adz” that completely revamped his style, and would set the scene for the greatest show I’ve ever been to.

When I was offered a ticket to go see Sufjan last year, I expected a show full of acoustic numbers like the ones I’d heard. I was extremely surprised to discover the show to be a riot of colour, with a huge band playing both acoustic and electric instruments, fun props, a slideshow of art timed to go with the show, and even dancers in glow-in-the-dark costumes. During the show’s last song (“Impossible Soul”), a giant cascade of multi-coloured balloons dropped into the audience from the ceiling. Sufjan had a beautiful voice regardless of effects, but at times experimented with auto-tune on a vocal pedal, with really entertaining results. Even though at times I could barely see the stage, and I knew hardly any of the songs in the set, it was truly THE BEST live music show I’ve ever been to. And that is trumping huge musical idols of mine who I’ve seen perform at big entertainment centres. I will never forget that performance. When I got home I furiously looked up everything about Sufjan Stevens, and went out to buy all his albums.

“The Age of Adz” is a very interesting concept album. Its artwork and music take heavy inspiration from schizophrenic, apocalyptic artist Royal Robertson. Royal died in 1997, and I’m not quite sure what motivated Sufjan to dedicate an album to him in 2010. (I think Sufjan talked about that at the show, but I can’t remember now) In any case, Sufjan did an amazing job, even using Royal’s art on his album cover, as well as in the slideshow of the live show I saw. Being..well, mad, Royal did things like cover his entire house with paintings and artwork. Royal considered himself a prophet of God, and his artworks were of mixed media and incredibly colourful. They also featured a lot of references to aliens and outer space. You can definitely see the influence in Sufjan’s ‘Age of Adz’, which is…how can I explain it…it’s like an explosion of electronic, orchestral joy. It sounds colourful and glittery. It makes fantastic use of dynamics, and doesn’t follow traditional structure. This is taken to the point where some songs (like ‘Impossible Soul’ – clocking in at a whopping 25 minutes) sound like 3 or 4 songs joined to become one.  The lyrics are both global and intensely personal, which marked a big departure from Sufjan’s previous works. (He was known for telling tight little story/character driven tales in his lyrics, like on albums like Seven Swans and Michigan. )

Before his crazy ‘Age of Adz’ venture, Sufjan was still very much an innovator. Let’s see. One of his earliest albums was ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, a ‘song cycle’ based on the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Sufjan also began an ambtious project called ‘The 50 States project’, with the 2003 release of his album ‘Michigan’.  The songs on ‘Michigan’ reference people, places and events from the state of Michigan. ‘Illinoise’ was Sufjan’s next step in this project. (To me, the standout songs of that disc were ‘Chicago’ and ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’. Joyful and haunting, respectfully:)

Some people are beginning to say that the ’50 States’ project is a joke, which seems likely as it’s getting on in time and Sufjan still hasn’t done any new ‘state’ albums. Even so, it’s a cool idea he could possibly revist every few years or so. I won’t complain…

One last cool thing about Sufjan; he remains independent to this day. Instead of jumping aboard a huge label, he has stayed with his own label, Asthmatic Kitty records. Yay for indie!

Hope you enjoyed learning about Sufjan, or possibly learning something new if you were already a fan. And make sure you take the chance to see this guy play live if you ever get the chance. He puts on a fantastic and unforgettable show!

Thank you for reading 🙂

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5 Responses to Talent Tuesday #2 – Sufjan Stevens

  1. keithpp says:

    Another one to add to the list of talent ….

    Rhian Sheehan, a New Zealand based composer and producer of cinematic music. Try Standing in Silence

    http://keithpp.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/standing-in-silence-live/

  2. That quote “You gave your body to the lonely/They took your clothes/You gave up a wife and a family/You gave your goals/To be alone with me, you went up on the tree/I’ll never know the man who loved me” is definitely talking about Jesus, not a romantic affair with a man. Sufjan is a Christian, Jesus’s clothes were taken from him before he was crucified, he lived celibate in order to further his ministry, the cross is often refereed to as “the tree,” and he won’t ever know him because he died in 33 AD.

  3. Hugh says:

    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it.

    Can I add a different perspective to consider about the song, “To Be Alone with You?” The first verse describes a human love relationship, while the second verse compares that relationship between a person and Jesus, as described in the Bible.

    Here are some reasons I think this may be the intent of the songwriter:

    1. “You gave your body to the lonely.”
    Jesus used language similar to this when preparing his friends for his death. The biblical writer Luke describes it this way: “And he (Jesus) took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

    2. “They took your clothes.”

    The writer Matthew tells a story of the Roman soldiers who were killing Jesus:

    Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him…”

    The writer then describes the soldiers mocking and beating Jesus. Then later he says, “And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots.”

    3. “You gave up a wife and a family.”
    Jesus never married while on earth so that he could fulfill his mission.

    4. “You gave your ghost.”

    I’ve often seen this lyric transcribed as “You gave your goals.” I think it’s “You gave your ghost,” meaning, “You died.” The King James Version of the Bible uses this old-fashioned phrase to describe the death of Jesus. More up to date translations say, “He breathed his last.”

    5. “To be alone with me you went up on the tree.”
    Biblical writers interchange the word “tree” with the word “cross.”

    For instance, Galatians 3:10-13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

    This writer is saying that everyone is guilty of doing wrong things, but that Jesus took the punishment we deserved. Because he went to the tree / cross to take that punishment, we can be in a relationship with God. He did it “to be alone with me” – to forgive me and be in a relationship with me.

    So just as the singer describes the sacrifices he would make to be with the person he loves, he’s in awe that Jesus would sacrifice so much more to be in a relationship with him. That’s the interpretation of the song that makes the most sense to me.

    • Yes, very interesting interpretation! That could be the case. I hadn’t thought of that, as I’m not very familiar with the Bible. But I’ve heard that Sufjan Stevens is religious (though he doesn’t often talk about it publicly). So that could make perfect sense. I like the fact that there is a spiritual dimension to his music! I think you can get to very deep places with music if you are open to more than superficial topics.

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