Monday, September 11, 2006

"Charmingly militant": Sufjan Stevens

Welcome, visitors from Clusterflock and Bittersweet Life. I hope you'll enjoy your visit here and maybe even stay and look around some more. Thanks as well to Andrew and Ariel, respectively, for linking to this post.

Several years ago, I recall reading a review in Rolling Stone for an AC/DC album--I forget just which one it was. Anyway, the sub-heading for the review, which appeared under the title of the album read, "11 delicate tone poems." The very next line read, "Just seeing if you were paying attention."

Funny, if you know from the get-go that in the case of AC/DC you always know what you're going to get. That is, indeed, their chief virtue in the eyes of their fans. To paraphrase Thoreau, in them there is no guile: whatever winks we got from Bon Scott and continue to get from Brian Johnson and the brothers Young are of the debauched, ogling kind. No subtlety here: all is on display. Power chords rule; tone poems drool.

Most bands are like this, I'd say. Pop music has traditionally been about the earnest communication of emotions to an audience--emotions, moreover, that the singer has at least experienced vicariously, if not in fact, as is most likely true of the audience as well. Performance always requires some artifice, of course, but I'm talking here about what is at the heart of what's being sung about.

But in the past few years some groups have come along whose schtick is to wink so much that they appear to have a stigmatism that requires medical treatment. Coming of age in these po-mo, distrust-the-Grand-Narratives times of ours, their saftey valve in their art is a cynical (or skeptical, to be kinder) irony that appears to be uninformed by a set of firm ideals or principles. As I wrote a while back about one such group, I personally end up not trusting them, seeing as I can't be sure they believe in the characters they've created in their music. What's the point of what you're doing, then?, I want to ask them. What's being communicated?

In that post I just linked to, my online friend Erin of Mannequin Hands asked if I'd heard of Sufjan Stevens and what I thought of his work. At that time, I had only heard of him; now, finally, I'm getting around to answering Erin's other query.

The short summation, so as to give you a chance to determine whether or not you want to Read More: Stevens, like his comment about his first name in an interview he gave, is "charmingly militant"--and (unless I'm really missing the boat) his enemy is just this sort of cynical irony. He puts it on display at the very surface, then sings songs whose very reason for existing is precisely to undercut that ironic surface by forcing us to say, The only way this song can work is if he is in earnest.

At least, I hope that's what he's doing.

If I'm confused about what Stevens is up to, I'm in good company, as indicated by this 2004 review of a performance at the oh-so-hip Knitting Factory. So, I'm glad that, if he IS just some sort of joke (and, given his occasional subject matter, a monstrously perverse one at that), other people will be the targets of derision as well. The tour poster at the beginning of this post is proof that Stevens knows about jokes, about send-ups of iconic Americana; so also does the cover art for Illinois, the album I have in mind as I'm writing this post. Note, just as one example, the cover's jokey reference to the Slade/Quiet Riot hit, "Come On Feel the Noise." But the cover of the album, though quirky, is also what we can assume is Stevens' personal pastische of what "Illinois" signifies to him: Superman, strangely, appears here, but the album contains a song called "The Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts." Two songs are about Chicago, one moreso than the other. Perhaps Al Capone's presence alerts us to the album's darker songs, one of which I'll discuss at length later on. The flying saucers, finally, prepare us for this album's recurring themes of mysterious visitations and of being watched from above.

The cartoon-y cover, then, whatever else it does, pulls the viewer in various directions. We're not quite sure what to expect, apart from whimsy and some mystery.

Stevens' voice is his chief weapon; it has exactly the range of Dan Fogelberg's but is softer still. It is childlike in the most positive sense of that word, and it was accepting the genuineness of his voice that was the first step in coming not just to trust Stevens but believe in him--yes, in the sense of a faith act. His music is like his voice: it has such openness, such unguardedness, no safety-net of ironic detachment but an all-embracing quality--like Walt Whitman's poet's stance, I keep thinking over and over--that "belief" seems the only adequate word. That music--the melodies, I mean--is a bit same-y, true, especially of the more uptempo pieces; but that's to be expected when a major influence on you as a composer and arranger is Steve Reich. And anyway, for me it's not the music so much as the lyrics that both keep me listening and, in the end, seal the deal regarding Stevens' utter sincerity.

Consider, for example, what may be the bravest song I've ever heard anywhere in pop music, not just because of its subject matter but what the singer tells us about himself as it ends: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." (some background reading here). When I first saw this title, I was stupified: WHY?? I wanted to know. What could someone say in a pop song about this monster and his crimes that would not either give offense or seem terribly mawkish or, worse still, end up in some way granting this man yet more fame for his crimes? I simply could not imagine. But/so I listened, and held my breath. And even though I've listened several times since, I still hold my breath. Over a quiet, melancholy melody Stevens conveys the horror of Gacy's crimes via details of Gacy's neighbors' liking him and his (initial) gentleness toward his victims, but that still doesn't prepare the listener for the shocking final stanza:
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid.

The easy target is, of course, Gacy. Who of us in some sort of kneejerk fashion wouldn't feel morally superior to such a monster? But Stevens instead uses Gacy as a mirror to confront his own corrupt nature--and that delicate voice of his, singing those shocking words, cannot help but make us look in the same mirror. There is no wink, no nudge, no joke, no detachment here: This song can work only if we take seriously what Stevens has just sung--which means examining ourselves as he has done and acknowledging that at base, to borrow a phrase, all have sinned and have fallen short. One doesn't have to be a believer to acknowledge that there are things about us that we'd just as soon other people not know about.

Such is the delicacy of Stevens' craft. No naïf wrote this song. But neither did an ironist.

And, it seems to me, only a believer in God truly honest with himself and wise regarding the nature of belief, as in "Casimir Pulaski Day" could so openly and honestly acknowledge both that God does not always answer our prayers, no matter how heartfelt and sincere, and that He nevertheless remains this world's sovereign--and yet avoid our just laughing in his face.

(Can you see yet why I've said I "believe" in Sufjan Stevens' work? And why I sincerely hope I've not misunderstood what he's doing?)

Irony, of course, doesn't care what WE have done, just what OTHERS have done. Stevens insists that we care about what we have done; the others, he seems to be saying, will receive their reward, so don't worry about them. He has rather a full, self-heaped plate of things to worry about. So also do we, if we're honest with ourselves. That's the "militant" part. The "charming" part is that, to my ears, he's not preachy or sanctimonious--which, of course, invites us in.

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Joel said...

John: Excellent post.

Your promise of some thoughts on this topic motivated me to listen to "Illinois" over the weekend, wanting to be able to respond less glibly than my "kick booty" comment last week. (See how powerful your blogging is? It changed my weekend!)

Amazingly, on close listening, the pieces that affected me most are the pieces you point out. When Sufjan ended "John Wayne Gacy" with that stanza, I got teary-eyed -- my wife can attest to it. And I was moved by the themes you mentioned in the Pulaski song.

Sufjan is reportedly Christian, though he apparently takes pains in interviews to emphasize he is *not* making Christian art -- and given my background at a Mennonite college, I'd say he's right to do so. Given, also, my relative lapsedness, I can also say that it's art like he makes (and, similarly, Johnny Cash) — full of real expressions about doubt, frustration, with the hope of something -- that leaves me with any lingering hope of being able to reconnect to what I see as a more grounded, realistic faith.

You're right about the lyrics being a drawing point; luckily, unlike so much pop music, you can hear what Sufjan is singing ... you can take time to meditate on what he's saying because you're able to decipher it.

John B. said...

Thanks for the kind comments.
Your closing paragraph reminds me of something I'd meant to include in the post proper. I'm intrigued by the fact that this recording is very flat sonically: little or no echo or reverb. I don't know the proper terminology for what I'm calling "flatness," but the upshot is that while some of that is necessity--Stevens' wispy vocals would often be drowned out otherwise--I also think it's an aesthetic choice, one befitting what I take to be his utter sincerity. His sound is no bigger than it in fact is. It is what it is--just as the songs themselves are.

Ariel said...

Great post, John. Excellent. You really draw out the qualities that I have picked up on Illinoise, down to the two songs (I noticed they got Joel, too) that grabbed me the most.

I have to believe Sufjan is sincere.

"To paraphrase Thoreau, in them there is no guile."

In passing, I have to add that sentences like that are what makes Blog Meridian so inimitable.

Andrew Simone said...

Sufjan (It's pronounced "Soof-yan," incidentally) is incredible live, I must say. I am going to see him again in about a week.

I think you read Stevens' rightly as anti- or at least "a-" ironic. His earnestness pervades his work. Even his strange and early electronica album, Enjoy Your Rabbit.

Oh and I linked to you over at clusterflock.