By Blake Parker
With the ever-modest Sufjan Stevens, it’s hard to tell if his music was actually a true labor, difficult by any means, or if he’s so naturally gifted that he just sat down one day and wrote the songs. Personally, it’s even still a mystery to me if Stevens is trained in any of the multiple instruments he plays on his albums or if he really does just “try to play them because they were around,” and honestly I enjoy not knowing for sure – the beauty of Stevens is that whichever is true, his humble boyish personality remains the same. It is certain, though, that Stevens has a talent in storytelling and composing that no other musician in his niche can come close to.
Stevens has an interesting history leading up to his musical career that is equal parts novel-but-predictable, and bizarrely original. His first instrument, the recorder, is still a large part of his current sound and led him to explore oboe and other wind instruments; his sister’s childhood pursuit of piano rubbed off more on him than it seemed to stick on her; his sincere albeit clichéd desire to learn guitar in college introduced the recording element to Stevens’ musical endeavors; and so on. But, despite all these quirky exposures to music, Stevens graduated college and went to The New School in New York for writing and began working as an aspiring writer thereafter. While at this point in his life, he admits having given up on music, but it’s my opinion that this is where he gained his unmistakably pure and innocently impactful writing style.
After leaving his writing job and focusing on music again, Stevens released a number of albums —some of which had been recorded in college and stashed away, but many were new projects— while also collaborating on albums with other artists and spearheading a new record label with his step-father Lowell, dubbed Asthmatic Kitty Records, simultaneously. While these albums span a wide breadth of genres and atmospheres (both in recording terms and lyrically), two albums of Stevens’ stand out: his colossal Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come on Feel the Illinoise and his most recent, the vulnerable Carrie & Lowell.
Stevens’ album Illinoise is the second installment in his sarcastic-but-perhaps-not-initially Fifty States Project, in which Stevens pledged to write an album per state in the United States. Following Sufjan Stevens Presents… Greetings From Michigan The Great Lakes Sate (a stylistically similar and equally earnest but slightly less dramatic album), Illinoise seems to be the point at which Stevens’ writing, composition, and recording capabilities watershed into a fully realized sound, now iconic to Sufjan Stevens. The album was recorded with the help of a string quartet, a local choir, mish-mashed vocal harmonies from various friend musicians, a stand-in trumpeter who was really more of a punk bassist and hadn’t played the horn in years, and a drummer that after the recording sessions felt a need to apologize for how weird and likely unusable his takes were, whom is now the longest-standing live performer to accompany Stevens on tours.
Truly, Stevens deserves praise for taking such an unlikely combination of musicians and creating such a groundbreaking record. Not to mention his use of only two slightly sub-standard recording microphones, an 8-track recorder for tracking, a file-transfer method from the 8-track via headphone output to a computer with Pro Tools at which point every track was lined up, two by two, by sight. For those less music equipment savvy, there were then —and certainly are now— far simpler and more user-friendly methods to recording an album than the technique listed above. But this seems to be the spirit of Stevens’ creations: making the most of what is readily available without acknowledging or perhaps even recognizing the “normal” procedure.
Minimalism seems to be the key. Much of the auxiliary percussion and vibraphone heard on the album was available to Stevens during a visit to see his brother who worked at a school; after hours Stevens would bring his 8-track by and track parts for instruments he may have never played before. Minimalism also seems to be present in his lyrics and song themes. Stevens writes so often about childhood or adolescent experiences, visceral or core emotional memories, and stripped down social, familial, and spiritual encounters. His lyrics rarely confuse listeners with their vocabulary, and are almost always relatable at some raw level. Additionally, Stevens’ lyrics throughout the album give nod to various points in the state of Illinoise’ history, both proud and less so. Across the 22 tracks and nearly 80 minutes of the album, Stevens covers the Black Hawk War between colonists and Native Americans, infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and more general depictions of the state including marching bands, bible studies, UFOs, and Presidents.
Stevens’ most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, provides as much glistening oomph as Illinoise did, but in different instrumentation, and as much honest punch and bare-bone purity, but on much more personal and borderline dark themes. Carrie & Lowell is, with no reserves, an elegy to Stevens’ mother and step-father, and a coping mechanism now that they’re gone. Some (me included) might take this circumstance and pigeon-hole the album into a mopey, one-dimensional installment in an otherwise optimistic catalogue of music, and dismiss the album. But this is a terrible mistake, as Carrie & Lowell is one of Stevens’ grandest, although heaviest, musical endeavors yet.
The album takes a similar approach to the earlier and less mature Seven Swans, in which flashy instrumentation and obscurely entertaining topics are set aside for a more intimate, acoustic sound. However, while Seven Swans may have been intentionally tinny-sounding and campfire hymn-esque, Carrie & Lowell utilizes the most impressive production techniques yet heard on a Sufjan Stevens album to give the songs a ghostly, illuminous, sometimes sweetly hollow atmosphere juxtaposing it vastly from its thematic counterpart.
That being said, Stevens’ minimalism still reigns, as many of the album’s collaborators can affirm the same basic, almost lazy recording techniques – using cheap or borrowed gear and recording in such unorthodox places as a hotel room (three whole tracks may have major elements recorded this way) before applying the post-production magic to make the songs sound translucent and wispy. Lyrically, though, the album is anything but lazy. It almost seems to pace back and forth, up and down, attempting to grapple the permanence of mortality in its most personal form. The songwriting of Carrie & Lowell takes no shortcuts, and censors no emotional reactions to the content, and thus the intimacy of this album is exponentially increased.
While Illinoise seemed to take small, trivial, tourism history stories and make them cacophonous regal espouses of grandeur, Carrie & Lowell seems to take heart-wrenching and abysmally melancholy subjects and rock them back and forth like a soothing lullaby, refusing to indulge the angry, violent reactions that might logically follow. Indeed, it seems the most beautiful ability of Stevens’ music is to inflate the petty into something unignorably huge and demanding of awe, and to exhale the turmoil from one of the worst possible events in life to pacify it, even make it measured and calming.
Whether declaring the wonder of an unlikely Midwestern state, or relaxing the despairing thoughts of suicide and humility in death to a croon, Sufjan Stevens is a renowned musician in his ability to dictate any tone of any theme. May his CDs remain at the top of the stack in my car for eternity!