Sufjan Stevens is the most interesting musician I know. To be clear: he is not the best singer, he is not the best lyricist, he is not the best songwriter or composer. What he has done, up to now, is combine a love for complex, beautiful music, and a deep love for God. It’s a combination that has fascinated me.
I had the rare privilege of seeing him in concert the other night at a tiny venue in Philadelphia called Johnny Brenda’s. Sufjan had not toured since 2006, and the crowd’s anticipation in the room seemed at times literally breathless — people hardly daring to exhale for fear of spoiling the moment. Is he going to play new stuff? old stuff? weird stuff? And beneath it all, there lingered the dominant question – will any of his songs move me tonight the way they have moved me before?
Sidenote: It was quite a gathering of hipsters, with the ladies wearing t-shirts of bands that don’t even exist yet, and the guys flaunting their knit hats. It could not have been less than 80 degrees in the venue, but fellas showed a kind of desperate diligence to keep their caps on. They wiped the sweat from their eyebrows and kept earnestly nodding to the rhythm. Sufjan, no less than the rest, dressed the part with his inside-out blue and red hat. I felt naked without a beanie.
The crowd greeted him with some enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm seemed ragged and tentative, as if it had just been mugged on Girard Avenue by a fierce attack of awe-struck admiration. There was no singing along with the songs: people whispered the words, so that there was just the barest breath of an echo even in such a small room. The one exception was on the song which many consider Sufjan’s most touching: Casimir Pulaski Day, about the narrator’s love for a girl dying of cancer. Even here, no one sang the words, but after all the words were finished, everyone joined in as Sufjan sang along with the trumpet, “Da da da, da da da”. There was such palpable relief, as if to say, “Finally, we can’t mess up the words and spoil this amazing song.”
What was strange was that Sufjan spent much of the night messing up the words for us. He was clearly serious about keeping the crowd happy, and he played many of his most famous tunes, but there he was on stage, forgetting the lyrics, beseeching our patience, wincing when he got “I” and “you” turned around at one point in Casimir Pulaski day – “I kissed your neck and you almost [here he winces as he realizes that he’s screwed it up] touched my blouse”. He admitted at one point in the concert that he just doesn’t play these songs very much anymore.
Some days after the concert, I read Sufjan interviewing his label-mate, singer Shannon Stephens (different spelling, no relation). Here’s a part of one of his questions for her:
Q: I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music—that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together—I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process. Now, while I refuse to act wholly on this impulse (I refuse to take my audience for granted in spite of my mood), I’m still trying to find the value of the song in private….Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?
Here’s another question he asked:
Q: At the same time, people often tend to like the older songs. Is there some kind of psychological disassociation that’s required of us to maintain a healthy view of older material? I never like the idea of condescension toward a song. But I loathe looking back, and the idea of nostalgia makes me sick. Also, I fear that some of the best songs are the product of reckless naivety, the fodder of youth.
These are pretty self-absorbed questions. It’s seems to be a dangerous slope, a slippery slide into the pit of artistic self-reference. C’mon, Sufjan, really — the “value of the song in private” ain’t much. And his question: “Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?” Uh… no.
With this in mind, you might expect his new songs to be self-indulgent messes. In some ways they are. He is using again the discordant electric guitar solos that have featured in so many of his songs (e.g. “Springfield,” and “The Man of Metropolis”), but now there are even more of them. And the discord in the songs has grown beyond a few solos, to the point where now it takes over whole sections of the new songs. It’s the sort of music designed for an audience of one.
Yet, these dissonant moments still haven’t completely taken over his music. If his interview questions make it sound as if he’s writing for just himself, his lyrics belie that claim. After the first two songs, I turned to the friends with whom I saw the concert and said, “I would never have expected Sufjan to open a concert with two blatant love songs.” But that’s exactly what they were. His opening song contained the line: “Woman, I was freaking out because I want you to know, my beloved, you are the lover of my impossible soul.”
In his second song, he quotes repeatedly from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”, while his own lyrics seem to describe what I can only picture as a romantic evening in the midst of a hurricane at the end of the world. As the winds rage, he sings, “all delighted people raise their hands / and I took you by the sleeve / no other reason than to be your leading man.” And again he sings, “on your breast I gently laid / your arms surround me in the lake / I am yours forever.” And the song concludes with him asking, over and over, “Do you love me from the top of your heart?”
That is bolder romantic love than I have ever heard from Sufjan. Contrary to his statements, I think he does want to write songs for someone besides himself, but just not for us. The masses, hoi polloi, the groundlings: we’re not who he aiming at. He seems to be aiming at a woman who can hear his cry for love.
Has romantic love replaced God in his songs? The new songs refer to God only obliquely. So many of his earlier songs are full of amazement at finding, in the midst of sorrow, or smoke, or swans, a glimpse of God’s glory. But this does not seem to be present in the new stuff. It makes Sufjan less unusual, at least as far as themes. Perhaps he is compensating by making his music even more complex, and less accessible than before. This certainly takes away from the new stuff. Older extravagant pieces such as “Majesty Snowbird” and “Chicago” put the new songs to shame. It does not mean the new songs are bad. In fact, some of them are pretty good. But some of the complexity seems more contrived, more artificial, than in the past.
He seems to know, however, that artistic self-indulgence gets old fast. We could go on and on with the litany of artists who became parodies of themselves through conceit. Sufjan certainly tends in this direction, but something keeps drawing him back. In the past, it seemed, it was God. Judging by the new songs, it seems that what keeps him tethered is a woman’s love. I certainly do hope he writes songs once again full of wonder at God’s subtle presence. But if a woman’s love keeps him writing good songs, then perhaps God’s presence is exactly what he is describing after all.