Saturday, 26 September 2009

Saturday Spotlight: Sufjan Stevens

Believe it or not, despite being a genius, Sufjan Stevens was not my first pick for this week's Saturday Spotlight.

I really wanted to write about Dan Mangan (whose new album Nice, Nice, Very Nice is one of my recent favorites) but the videos of him on YouTube weren't to my liking, and then I considered Fiona Apple for an hour or two, but this week has, to be honest, felt like a long hike (in Winnipeg, it's been unbearably hot) and Apple's music is not the sort of thing you want to mark the weekend with, especially the weekend of such a brutal week as this.

So I decided to go with Sufjan, and I'm glad I did, because if there's one artist that can be calming and celebratory, hilarious and heartbreaking (often within the same song), it's him.

Listen to "Chicago" and you'll see.

That's a song from his 2005 album Illinois, the second entry in the Fifty States Project, a self-imposed goal of his to write an album about each U.S. state. It's also the album I was introduced to Sufjan through, and (maybe because of this) it's also my favorite.

Here's another song from that album, the stunning "Casimir Pulaski Day" (which is not my favorite, "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!" is, but I'll let you discover that song on your own):

A year later Sufjan released The Avalanche, a collection of songs that, for one reason or another, hadn't made Illinois. Some of the tracks were, to be honest, fairly disposable, but I can't fathom why b-sides like the deceptfully simple title track weren't included on his previous record.

As you may have guessed from listening to the previous three songs, there is a fairly deep spiritual undercurrent running through much of Sufjan's material. That undercurrent fully revealed itself on 2004's Seven Swans, an album with song titles like "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands", "In the Devil's Territory" and "The Transfiguration". Its combination of quiet, spiritual pieces and darker, more expansive melodies is most evident in "The Dress Looks Nice On You" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (inspired by the Flannery O'Connor short story), both found below.

Two of the most fascinating (and occasionally frustrating) aspects of Sufjan's musical career are his occasional forays into the realm of electronica (his first two albums, A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit, are the best examples) and his willingness to expand upon and reinterpret other artists' work. At times, these two facets come together in mysterious and brilliant ways, like in his cover of "You Are the Blood", a song that is originally by a band called Castanets --but you couldn't tell it from Adam after Sufjan got his hands on it. Take a listen.

Another gorgeous cover Sufjan did was for the soundtrack of the film I'm Not There of Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells". It's much better than his cover of Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris", which relied too much on the original melody. Whenever I listen to this song, I get the image of a sunset parade through a small prairie town occasionally interrupted by sirens rushing to a hospital emergency or car accident. It's that good.

By listening to the songs I've provided, I hope you've come away from this Saturday Spotlight with the sense that Sufjan Stevens is, as I stated before, a genius; and even if you don't think he's worthy of that particular title, you can't deny he's remarkably creative.

What's next in the cards for Sufjan? He's releasing a string quartet version of Enjoy Your Rabbit in October called Run Rabbit Run, and a CD version of his performance piece The BQE soon after. Personally, I'd prefer it if he returned to the Fifty States Project, but that's the thing about Sufjan -- he follows his muse wherever it goes.

And in a day and age when muses are so often tightly controlled and restricted by external forces, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Until next time,


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