01 July 2007

You're like a bird that will not be

Image courtesy of and featuring the awesome "ecrivais."

Sometimes you do something just for fun. You don't expect anyone is paying attention, you don't do it for anyone but yourself. But in the information age, people will pick something up and run with it--how else to explain the popularity of sites like I Can Has Cheezburger?

This is what happened to me about three months ago. I kept getting questions about "What is the deal with this 'suhf-jan' person you keep talking about?" I decided to answer as many questions as I could in one fell swoop and thus created "Sufjan Stevens 101," a blog entry in the LiveJournal Sufjan and Audiography communities which was picked up and spread about the internet. Last I checked, it'd been picked up by BoardReader, mixseek, nnseek, ljtop, RambleOn, elbo.ws, and a rabble of other places, including technorati, which I won't bother to pull up links from because I'm being a lazy pain today.

So, if for no reason but my own edification, I'm reposting it with fresh upload links for everyone. Enjoy.

So who is Sufjan Stevens? He refers to himself as a failed writer, despite the fact that he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in Greenwich Village. Given an Armenian name when born into the Subud cult (of the "Star "People") on July 1, 1975, in Detroit, Michigan, he's the second-youngest of six kids and currently a devout Episcopalian. His music is not traditionally "Christian"-sounding, though, and he gained some notoriety in 2003 when he (jokingly) announced he would produce one album a year for each of the 50 states, known as the "50 States Project."

Now 32, he lives in Brooklyn and has released seven albums under his name, and has collaborated on countless others. When he's not making music he's still writing, doing graphic design and occasionally knitting/crocheting for Martha Stewart magazine. He manages The Brooklyn branch of Wyoming-based label Asthmatic Kitty, with his stepfather, Lowell Brams (and a little help from his friends). He sucked his thumb until he was in the double digits according to several stories and pretended to be homeless for a weekend in Chicago. He might very well be batshit insane, in the best possible way. Oh, and he's a total dreamboat, too.

In his words:
"This is modern pop music. This is indie rock. Let's consider our audience. I'm not going to pretend that what I do is intelligent music for intelligent people. It doesn't really have to be. It's just entertainment. Song and dance. People want to know -- does it have a good beat, can you dance to it, does it rock?"

(from here.)

10 songs that define and span his career (thus far)

Marzuki: No One Likes a Nervous Wreck 10,000 Roses (For Me).mp3
From Marzuki

Sufjan Stevens:Marzuki::Tori Amos:Y Kant Tori Read, right? That is, this was a band he was in, in 1996 when he was just 21 or so, before he ever started doing stuff on his own. It was sort of a world-folk kind of thing, and this is the only track where he sings as well as plays instruments. It's noisy, it's awkward, it's like the baby lamb taking his first few steps.

Marzuki is named for Sufjan's brother (Marzuki Stevens), the Boston marathoner, who is in training for the 2008 Olympics. The cover art to their second album, 'No One Likes a Nervous Wreck' was a painting by Sufjan called “Vic Chestnutt eats a microchip.”

 A Sun Came! A Winner Needs a Wand.mp3
From A Sun Came!

The first release from Sufjan and his stepfather's label, Asthmatic Kitty, in 2000, while attending Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Sufjan is still clearly uncomfortable about using his own voice as an instrument.
It incorporates, in his words,
"traditional pop music, medieval instrumentation with Middle Eastern inflections, tape loops, digital samples, literary vocals, manic percussion, woodwinds, sitar, amp distortion and Arabic chants." According to Toronto's Now weekly, he "weaves together literary references, from Greek mythology to American Transcendentalism, then combines his tales with his Captain Beefheart and Sonic Youth influenced compositions."

Enjoy Your Rabbit Year of the Ox.mp3
From Enjoy Your Rabbit

Before you ever thought you could pigeonhole him so easily, here's an entire album of electronica from 2001. Yes, electronica. Computer music. Bleeps and bloops and manipulation and phat beats on this album, based on the Chinese Zodiac. This track's plodding beats mimic the heavy footsteps of a yolke of oxen turning the soil.

Sufjan sez:
"Rabbit was a real experiment for me. In terms of songwriting and electronics. I had never done anything like that before...But this was very deliberate. I was tired of folk music. I was listening to a lot of electronic music: Brian Eno, Mouse on Mars, Oval. I learned some things. Digitally generated sounds could be lively and warm. They could evoke an organic environment. I wanted to write music that had a very short history. I wanted to evoke narratives through electronic sound, without using words."

MichiganThe Upper Peninsula.mp3
From Michigan

aka "Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lakes State," The first of the so-called "50 States Project," this astoundingly lush post-rock concept album from 2003 is based on Sufjan's home state. Rich with memories, laments, hopes and failures of his past, this loving dedication shows an odd mixture of contempt and respect for a "failed" state he loves so deeply. In this song, Sufjan sings in minor keys over sparse percussion about the odd folks who choose to call themselves "Yoopers," making a rural and economically depressed area home.

Seven Swans To Be Alone With You.mp3
From Seven Swans

Garnering attention in 2004 as a deeply personal, introspective creation, this album focuses gorgeously on acoustics that shore of Sufjan and his Episcopalian dedications, family, and future. He scales down Michigan's grandeur to a minimalist palette for Seven Swans. Where the previous album was instrumentally comparable to Tortoise or Stereolab, Seven Swans is practically lo-fi, based around simply strummed acoustic guitars, banjo, organ, and hushed vocals. It's more akin to laconic Americana troubadours like Will Oldham and Iron & Wine, though no amount of sonic slimming-down can disguise Stevens's knack for crafty arrangements and accessibly quirky songs.

This was released on AK's sister label, Sounds Familyre, and was produced by Daniel Smith of Danielson Famile.

IllinoisCome On! Feel The Illinoise!: The World's Columbian Exposition/Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream.mp3
From Illinois

aka "Sufjan Stevens Invites You to Come On, Feel The Illinoise!" (and other variants), this is the album that rocketed him to indie-stardom in 2005. Heralded by critics as the Best Album of the Year, the ambition, gloriously sprawling 22-track magnum opus transcended genres.

Really, there's been so much said about it that there's not much more to say, so again I'll leave it to Suf himself:
"An engrossing musical road trip, "Illinois" takes you through ghost towns, grain mills, hospital rooms, and the City of Broad Shoulders, with guest appearances by a poet, a president, a serial murderer, UFOs, Superman, the goat that cursed the Cubs, and Decatur's famous Chickenmobile. Sufjan weaves variegated musical styles (jazz, funk, pop, folk, and Rodgers and Hammerstein-like flourishes) and the textures of 25 instruments into a tapestry of persons and places famous, infamous, iconic and anonymous. Invoking the muse of poet Carl Sandburg, "Illinois" ushers in trumpets on parade, string quartets, female choruses and ambient piano scales arranged around Stevens' emerging falsetto."

The AvalancheSpringfield, Or Bobby Got A Shadfly Caught In His Hair.mp3
From The Avalanche

Released summer 2006 as a collection of outtakes to Illinois, this is a full album in it's own right, with leniency toward three additional rejected versions of the ever-popular Chicago. While most "outtake" albums are a sorry excuse of reject material appealing to completionists only, Avalanche is an onslaught of compelling, fresh, Illinois-based material cohesively and masterfully collected. Springfield, taking home the "Neil Young Soundalike" award, Is a sad story with slightly twangy strings and a slight pick-up beat. Powerfully moving, this overlooked cut eclipses many other "silly" tracks with almost painful Sonic-Youth inspired electric guitar riffing during the bridge and powerful, memorable lyrics.

Songs for ChristmasStar of Wonder.mp3 and
Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!).mp3
From Songs for Christmas

From the AK site:
Sufjan & friends concocted a musical fruit cake year after year, implementing every musical instrument they could find lying around the house: banjo, oboe, Casiotone, wood flute, a buzzy guitar, hand claps, sleigh bells, Hammond organ, and some tree tinsel. Did we mention sleigh bells? It doesn’t take much to capture that Creepy Christmas Feeling, does it? Recorded, mixed and mastered at home, the EPs themselves were often assembled in the kitchen, stapled together, and sent out with stickers and stamps to loved ones across the globe, year after year, with little Christmas cards that read: “Merry Christmas. You are something special. Santa Claus loves you. And so do I.”

This collection of 5 EPs (each one recorded every year since 2001, "The Year of Epiphanies") was released just in time for it's namesake holiday, in 2006. These two tracks represent just a sliver of the variety on the collection of 42 songs.
For one, we have Star of Wonder, an amazing, epically lush and wildly histrionic song just barely encapsulating the glory and wonder of the season, with snowfall and family.
Another take on family is revealed in Did I Make You Cry?, a more traditionally rock-y song heavy with guitars and a more contemporary verse-chorus-verse trend.

Sufjan Stevens as the Majesty Snowbird

Majesty, Snowbird.mp3
Performed live at the Tower Theatre

The Epic Song to end all Epic Songs. Seriously, this is my Stairway to Heaven. Bold, sprawling, richly orchestral, mature and polished, this 10-minute classical-sounding artwork proves even though Sufjan has repeatedly said he doesn't enjoy performing live, he can bring it. Seated at his piano with a guitar slung over his shoulder, he effortlessly moves between the instruments and sings, while conducting his "butterfly brigade" orchestra behind him.

Pitchfork sez: "this latest Stevens opus takes breaths, jerks tears, and affirms lives like no other." A non-album song performed live exclusively on his most recent tour of the same name, Majesty Snowbird awes and inspires "sea after sea of melted faces."


Jeremy Edwards said...

Nice work! Part of me feared Sufjan was becoming too much of a caricature at the hands of those on the I Can Has Cheezburger? bandwagon. If you ask me, the syntax is remarkably similar to that of the "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Also, along those lines, I wonder what it says about our society when posts on I Can Has Cheezburger? rack up 99 comments consisting of "We nose teh kwesjun…and yes, since u is so kyut, u can haz a cheezburger…but onlee a liddel wun, liddel wun!" and "Iffen youse stehps to the levts adn stehps too da rites the leetle poofie squwares singh. Com hons and daince wifs mi."

Maybe Sufjan knows the answer.

Brabazon said...

What a great little blog this is to have stumbled upon. It's actually useful and enriching not just a collection of rants and diseased opinions. 'More power to your wee wheel', as we say here in Ireland. In this case the 'wee wheel' in question appears to be a volume knob...

All this and I also get to discover that I share a birthday with Sufjan... my day can only go downhill from here... :)

Undisputed Wes said...

this is such a great post :) what a pleasure :)