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The Evolution Of Sufjan Stevens Through 15 Essential Tracks

Twenty five minute esoteric synth odysseys; banjo odes about entire US states; 120-track Christmas albums; and conceptual works detailing the cosmos. You could never accuse Sufjan Stevens of a lack of ambition. Words by Jared Richards

By Jared Richards, 30/9/2020

Twenty five minute esoteric synth odysseys; banjo odes about entire US states; 120-track Christmas albums; conceptual works detailing the cosmos; and song-titles so long that even Fiona Apple would take a deep breath before pronouncing them. You could never accuse Sufjan Stevens of a lack of ambition.

In the last twenty years, Stevens has shifted sound and scope time and time again, though his enduring image remains as a poster boy for ’00s indie-twee: a sensitive folk artist with a boyish face and a gentle, melancholic voice, singing about serial killers, summer camps and driving cross-country to ‘Chicago’. But for the most part, that Sufjan is long gone, hardened.

Promoting his newest album Ascension, released last week, Stevens, now 45, told The Guardian that there was a  “naïvety to my former self”. “There was a hopefulness, joyfulness and playfulness to a lot of those early records that’s been slowly receding over the years,” he said.

“It’s hard for me to speak for it because it’s happened so gradually, like watching a tree grow. But you start to lose faith in the structures of society as you get older, and I think that’s coming to the surface now.”

But it’d also be naïve to break Stevens’ discography into optimistic and jaded. Hope, cynicism, trauma and love swirl through Stevens’ music, intractable from each other thanks to his Christianity. There’s a pious sense of suffering throughout all his music — a belief that nothing is in vain, surely — that, over the years, has developed into a more esoteric religiosity  (with a dose of existential fear).

Hope, cynicism, trauma and love swirl through Stevens’ music, intractable from each other thanks to his Christianity.

It’s no surprise Stevens once said claimed he’d write 50 albums about the US’ 50 states, or that he’s fond of throwing every instrument he can into a song. This maximalist, all-in ambition has its roots in Stevens’ Walt Whitman-esque transcendentalism — a sincere and thorough belief in the inherent goodness of man, could we only rip apart the barriers between us.

Easier said than done: perhaps that’s why his music continually shifts, an attempt to hack away from different angles. Whether he’s singing over a few guitar strings about thinking of a lover like a brother, creating orchestral concept albums about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or pleading “don’t do to me what you did to America” over synths, Stevens wants to shrink distance between people.

It’s what made his music such a perfect to soundtrack Call Me By Your Name, a film about homosocial desire — the unique pain of wanting to be someone to know them wholly, and the impossibility of doing so. But Stevens’ music has connected with a queer audience long before Timothée Chalamet cried to ‘Visions Of Gideon’, as his relationship with a Godly ‘Him’ leaves space for interpretation. And pronouns aside, Stevens’ religious longing is a convergence of shame and absolution — a feeling many queers know well (as I’ve written about elsewhere).

Those feelings are occasionally less abstract. His opus, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, is a much more autobiographical album, a clear attempt to connect to his late mother, whose substance and mental health issues made her an unknowable figure. The devastating pain underneath is the lack of resolution, the inability to bridge that gap.

Stevens’ earnestness can turn a lot of people off. All of his music, banjo or no, is embarrassingly sincere. Even at his silliest — out of place sax solos, asking a neighbour for sugar, auto-tune screeches — Stevens never turns his search for communion or connection into a joke. His music, even as its lost its twee, remains focused on the idea that we can get closer.

Here’s a 15-track guide to Stevens’ patchwork quilt career, picking at the threads of thought, skipping entire albums (and most of his instrumental side-projects) in the process by necessity. There’s too much to cover — so come on, feel the noise.

‘Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!’ — Michigan (2003)

Michigan is Stevens’ third album, but it’s his true introduction.

His 2000 debut A Sun Came is a bloated mess of influences (Celtic, Middle-Eastern, folk, Elliot Smith) and many, many instruments, and follow-up Enjoy Your Rabbit is a conceptual electronic album about the Chinese Zodiac. Both speak to Stevens’ eccentric palate, but neither are particularly accessible. Michigan, despite being a concept album about Stevens’ home-state, is.

Having said that, it’s still a lot to take in. ‘Oh Detroit’ sums it up, an eight-minute ode to a city that’s been battered by industrialism and then left to rot. There are bells, chimes and choral singing about state infrastructure, gun control and the Iroquois people; it’s twee-chaotic, the song structure itself mirroring the city’s own rise and fall.

In their review of Michigan, Pitchfork calls Phillip Glass a clear influence on  Stevens, and it’s most clear here. Like Einstein On The Beach, ‘Oh Detroit’ is a track of detritus combined to express a hope and hurt more than the sum of its parts, its meaning in no one line.

Michigan‘s next track is ‘Romulus’, an acoustic ballad about the shame he feels about his mother. It’s considerably more down-tempo: Stevens has always found hope in the communal.

‘To Be Alone With You’ — Seven Swans (2004)

Stevens’ most overtly Christian album is also his most overlooked, sandwiched between Michigan and the career-changing Illinois. Comparatively sparse, almost dour at times, Seven Swans is built around Biblical imagery, filled with indie hymns of devotion.

‘To Be Alone With You’ could be a secular love song, at first. It’s a cutesy listing off of what Stevens would do to meet his lover, such as swimming across Lake Michigan and selling his shoes. But from the second verse, things get confusing, especially with “You gave up a wife and a family/You gave your ghost” and “I’ve never known a man who loved me”. God is the obvious answer, thanks to lines like “To be alone with me/you went up on a tree”, but Stevens’ sense of failure in his own devotion hits hard in a queer context.

Stevens’ whispering voice is carried with regret and reverence, in complete awe of what has been done for his love, and pained that he cannot match it. He seems to know penance has many forms, and writes to allow interpretation — perhaps out of a need to make his religious frustrations appeal to a wider audience.

‘John Wayne Gacy, Jnr.’ — Illinois (2005)

The final of Stevens’ ‘states’ albums, Illinois is arguably Stevens’ best-known album  — and not just for ‘Chicago’. It’s certainly filled with songs clearest to his popular conception: twee, moody banjo folk, cutesy rhymes, and silly, long song titles.

‘John Wayne Gacy, Jnr.’ stands out, a somber folk song about the infamous paedophilic clown serial killer. Sufjan sings through the facts — Gacy’s troubled childhood, his many crimes — over some of his most delicate piano work, an oddly perverse narration in-keeping with true crime podcasts rehashing traumas for entertainment value.

Then, the shift at song’s end:  “And in my best behaviour, I am really just like him/Look underneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid.” It’s an almost confession of some dark secret and deep shame, then the banjo flares up on ‘Jacksonville’.

It’s a fleck of darkness mostly reserved for his latter career, an empathy for Gacy built off self-loathing.

‘Chicago’ — Illinois (2005)

This is The Sufjan Stevens song. And it deserves to be, too.

Written about a difficult period in Stevens’ life, it carries the touchstones of everything you need to cling to. The song is sweeping, overwhelmingly optimistic — a chorus comes in to sing “all things go” over sleigh bells, for God’s sake.

A road trip feels like the chance for change, but it’s also a lot of reflection: as he drives to Chicago and then NYC, Stevens’ character reflects on his life’s mistakes in vague terms, repeats reassuring platitudes, and cries “for freedom” from himself.

Absolution from our messy lives isn’t possible, but ‘Chicago’ makes the pain of it an absolute joy — a Garden State scream into the abyss, a uniting moment of despair. It’s a perfect song.

‘The Predatory Wasps Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us’ — Illinois (2005)

Come for the woodwinds, stay for the homoerotic pining. Describing a nascent love Stevens had at a Methodist summer camp he recently referred to as an “awakening”, ‘Predatory Wasps’ balloons with the painful joy of remembering the past (“I can tell you I love him each day”).

A wasp bites his friend, then he kisses him: Stevens and the music circles back to the refrain  “we were in love!”, desperation and trilling bells growing. There’s nothing to say but to say it (“I can’t explain the state that I’m in”), knowing the full meaning can’t be contained. It’s a thought that comes up again in  ‘Futile Devices’, the opener on his next proper solo album, The Age Of Adz.

‘Djoharia’ — All Delighted People EP (2010)

When you look up ‘Djoharia’s lyrics on Genius, you’ll see the first line is “[11 minutes of crazy guitar intro/buildup]”. It’s no hyperbole: things start slow, but the screeching comes in, an electric guitar jumping around wherever it wants as Stevens sings his sister’s name, ‘Djoharia’.

It traces her life, the calm and the chaos and violence blown up into a jarring, psychedelic epic. The payoff might not be there yet in her life, but Stevens creates it in the song — 11 minutes in, the guitar falls away, and the chanting of her name becomes soothing.

A hand clap comes in, and Stevens cheers her on in a falsetto: “go on, little sister!”. With a progression like that, Stevens has the power to make large proclamations — when his core message to his sister, “all the wilderness of the world is yours”, arrives, the buildup makes it not just earned, but inevitable.

‘Futile Devices’ — The Age Of Adz (2010)

You’d imagine the opener of Stevens’ electronic album The Age Of Adz — the one he wore neon angel wings on stage to perform — would mark the shift, but ‘Futile Devices’ is one of his most simple tracks.

Over a gentle piano and percussive guitar, Stevens’ sings about the small joys of domestic love: having someone put  a blanket over you, watching them crochet and feeling ‘mesmerised and proud’. But, again, he can’t express the love he feels, and reaches for odd metaphors — “I think of you as my brother/although that sounds dumb”.

The lullaby continues, and he bemoans that ‘words are futile devices’ — an idea at the centre of Call Me By Your Name (and a lot more queer literature), and no doubt why the song features prominently in the film.

Here, it’s an indirect argument for the electro-odyssey to follow — inspired in dual parts by Stevens’ grappling with a mystery illness and the work of artist Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic painter who believed himself a prophet painting robotic Gods he saw in visions. The Age Of Adz is an attempt to shoot Stevens’ music into space via synths, glitch and auto-tune: a striving beyond ‘Futile Devices’.

‘Impossible Soul’ — The Age Of Adz (2010)

Listening to ‘Impossible Soul’ for the first time is such an immense joy. The 25-minute album closer is utterly unpredictable, more a series of movements than a single track.

An ode to the lover of his ‘impossible soul’, this is Stevens’ version of Whitman’s ever-expanding and revised ‘Song Of Myself’: an epic where the boundaries of the self are lost, contradictions be damned. Like Whitman in ‘Song Of Myself’, the Stevens in ‘Impossible Soul’ contains multitudes, floating between song sections as if each were a galaxy shifting his form.

Autotune, celestial bleeps, a house party break-down, robots, angelic sing-a-longs: but what, exactly, is it about? Some kind of almighty love — God, or the perils of elevating a lover into one? Stevens and the song reach for transcendence, and only one of them gets there: Stevens leaves defeated, but the audience leaves elated.

‘Christmas Unicorn’ — Silver & Gold (2012)

Enough life-and-death talk: Sufjan can be silly, too. Silver & Gold is Stevens’ second five-CD set of Christmas songs, meaning he has more than 100 Christmas tracks. It’s simply too much, but his obsession is all worth it for ‘Christmas Unicorn’, a 12-minute romp that interpolates ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

There’s an 80-page academic paper out there that argues the song is about the good at the core of the ridiculous commercialism of  Christmas, looking at all the theological allusions and the dumb sonic shift into ‘Impossible Soul’-lite. But this is one of the few Stevens’ tracks that doesn’t need analysis. Just embrace that you’re the Christmas unicorn! I’m the Christmas unicorn! Find the Christmas unicorn!

‘Fourth Of July’ — Carrie & Lowell (2015)

Stevens has always written from experience, but the sadness and shames littered across his work come to light on Carrie & Lowell, his best album. Written in wake of his mother’s death, Carrie & Lowell is a devastating work — a return to the relatively sparse compositions of Seven Swans, as if to let his feelings take up as much room as they need.

The song is as hopeful as it is broken: he describes the moment as both healing and alienating, as they try to bridge decades of distance.

His mother, Carrie, was absent for most of his life: she abandoned his family repeatedly in Stevens’ childhood from age 1, leaving his step-father Lowell to raise Sufjan and his siblings while they remained married. Lowell remains an important figure in Stevens’ life, running his label until retiring this year — to mark the end of an era, he collaborated with Stevens on instrumental album Aporia.

‘Fourth Of July’ details the last days of Carrie’s life before she passed of cancer in 2012. In the track, Stevens shifts perspectives, singing his mother’s last words — her pleads of forgiveness — back to him.

The song is as hopeful as it is broken: he describes the moment as both healing and alienating, as they try to bridge decades of distance. The song plods along until then the conversation ends, and Stevens keeps repeating his mother’s attempt at accepting her maker, “we’re all gonna die”.

‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ — Carrie & Lowell (2015)

It’s hard to pick only two tracks from Carrie & Lowell, but ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ covers a lot of ground. Stevens has never sounded so faint, his voice raspier than usual, sitting underneath the song’s gentle guitar.

Carrie & Lowell is a failed reckoning with his mother’s death, and having to accept that their relationship can only shift in his perception. In a 2017 interview, he said writing and releasing it “offered no catharsis or resolution or reconciliation”, just articulation.

Stevens says that after his mother’s death, he experimented with drug and alcohol abuse as a way to feel closer to her. That’s clearest on ‘The Only Thing’, but ‘No Shadow’ finds him completely lost — there’s no relief in religion, only ‘shadow’ and shame. Self-flagellation isn’t working either: the way he sings “fuck me, I’m falling apart” might be the most devastating moment of his career.

‘Mystery Of Love’ — Call Me By Your Name OST (2017)

And then came Call Me By Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino reached out to Stevens directly to ask if he’d write a song for the film (and perform it in the film), and he came back with two — ‘Mystery Of Love’ and ‘Visions Of Gideon’, and Age Of Adz’s ‘Futile Devices’ features too.

‘Visions’ plays in the final scene, the song and Elio questioning both what is and isn’t tangible in our memories, but ‘Mystery’ captures the romantic heart of the film. After Carrie & Lowell, it’s nice to hear Stevens optimistic — even if the song knows things will end, it relishes in the familiar pangs and sweet, harp-accompanied pains.

‘Tonya Harding’ — Tonya Harding (2017)

This stand-alone single was announced with a disclaimer: no, it’s not a tie-in with I, Tonya. Stevens offered it to them, but they ‘couldn’t place it’ — watching the film, it’s not hard to see why.

Gentler than anything in that biopic, Stevens’ ‘Tonya Harding’ is a return to Stevens’ empathetic character studies of US figures that littered his early albums. He narrates the figure skater’s rise and fall with warmth, calling her ‘my friend’, an ‘American princess’ and a ‘shining American star’ without irony.

Stevens released the song in two versions — a glistening, cinematic version ‘in D major’ and a stripped-back, piano led ballad ‘in Eb major’. In both, he sings to her directly, explaining the myth but reaching the person — creating an understated song that quietly attacks the way America feeds on scandal and fame.

‘America’ — The Ascension (2020)

The slight disgust that tinges ‘Tonya Harding’ has been unleashed on The Ascension, an album built around a disdain for not just Trump’s America, but the America always underneath.

Lead single ‘America’ — a 12-minute self-described “protest song against the sickness of American culture” — was first written back in 2014, but didn’t quite fit on Carrie & Lowell. In 2020, it takes on a more urgent tone, but the disease has long been there.

In classic Stevens fashion, the song speaks to an ambiguous ruler/lover figure, the core message “don’t do to me what you did to America”. He’s a broken believer — unlike many of his other epics, there is no optimism here, even with the sing-along chorus or symphonic beauty. There’s just emptiness, laid bare: the song (and album) bleed into ambiance, trailing off for an anti-climatic end.

‘Video Game’ — The Ascension (2020)

The Ascension is closer to The Age Of Adz than any of Stevens’ other work, but he’s done with the whimsy. Instead of Royal Robertson’s mad prophecies, he’s taken inspiration from what at first is a seemingly unlikely source: Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’, a song he admired for balancing so many complex emotions at once without simplifying them.

Simplicity isn’t Stevens’ calling card, but The Ascension has him leaning into platitudes and pop clichés in his lyrics,  as if reaching towards a common (hopefully transcendent) denominator. ‘Gimme some sugar’, ‘tell me you love me’, make me an offer I can’t refuse’  — in his voice, with his vagrant-electronica, they become pleads.

‘Video Game’ stands out as something stronger: a refusal to play, even if, somewhat ironically, it’s easily Stevens’ most conventional ‘pop’ song yet. Picking up inspiration from another of the past decade’s best pop songs, Stevens uses video games as a vague representation of many ills. Unlike Lana, he’s doing it to an 808, coding his own creation.

Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension is out now via Asthmatic Kitty.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Music Junkee, and freelance writer who has written for The Big Issue, The Guardian and more. He’s on Twitter.