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 🙂