Welcome to a new feature on 4FortyFour. In these (hopefully) weekly installments, I intend to examine the craft of songwriting, and pinpoint the finest songwriters of the modern era. The likes of Lennon & McCartney, Morrissey, Springsteen, Dylan and more have been examined to death, so these posts are going to look at different and often unlikely, yet no less worthy, candidates for the archives of the greatest songwriters.
This week we begin with Detroit-born troubadour, Sufjan Stevens.
In the ten years since the release of his debut album, A Sun Came, Stevens has been responsible for a prolific, varied and intriguing body of work, including the electronic Enjoy Your Rabbit, the symphonic The BQE and the notorious (and now defunct) 50-states project. There are few living songwriters who approach their craft in a similar manner to Stevens: the sheer volume of research that went into Illinois and Michigan alone is phenomenal.
Unlike the work that would follow, Stevens’ debut was met with a lukewarm reception. While not a typical folk album in the strictest sense, the album did not push the boundaries in a manner that we became used to on subsequent releases. It blended ethnic minority music with traditional folk and pop sounds, buoyed by a multitude of instruments. Ultimately, however, the album simply lacked the charm of later releases.
What followed this was the electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit. The album was based around the cycle of the Chinese Zodiac, looping beats creating a haunting atmosphere – yet, again, the album does not showcase Sufjan’s songwriting capabilities to the same extent as later releases. What it does indicate, however, is the thematic notions that would dominate future releases.
And, in 2003, the first of these was released: Sufjan Stevens Presents… Greetings From Michigan, the Great Lake State. A glorious ode to his home state, Michigan is the first genuine indicator of Stevens’ genius. The album is largely mournful in tone, a damning indictment of his hometown of Detroit (which he has referred to as a “monstrous concrete prison” since he relocation to Brooklyn) rather than the entirety of the state itself. Lyrically, it is quite frank: “Since the first of June/ Lost my job and lost my room/ I pretend to try/ Even if I try alone.” he pensively wails on the album’s opening number, ‘Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid).
Bravely, Sufjan errs more on the side of reality than caution when incorporating his home state into song: it is much more downbeat than the more well-known Illinois, a sad observation of the lives of the people of Michigan. A handful of tracks (‘All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Piece!’, the banjo-led ‘For the Windows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti’) are more hopeful, focusing the natural beauty of the state of Michigan, though all too often the album reverts back to the harsh realities of the city living in which Sufjan was raised.
From here, Sufjan released the bible-inspired Seven Swans (2004),Songs for Christmas (2006) and the ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, 2009’s The BQE. Each was dynamic and unique, the variety so striking that it is truly surprising to realise that each came from the mind of the same man. Such a body of work is startling – even one concept album of such depth takes such dedication that few take on the task, let alone the release ten in as many years.
Thus far, I have ommitted the works of greatest interest to anyone studying the craft of Sufjan’s songwriting: Illinois and it’s accompanying outtakes album, and last year’s The Age of Adz.
Come on Feel the Illinoise, to give it its full title, was the album that launched Sufjan to relative stardom. Together with The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album, it documents Sufjan’s second (and final) foray into the fifty states project, and what will surely be the staggering pinnacle of an incredible career, at least in terms of craft. Each song takes in a different aspect of the culture of Illinois: history, geography, criminality – even Superman, whose hometown is notably modelled on Chicago.
While ‘Chicago’ became the most well-known track on the album (due to its easily accessible soaring strings and a well placed feature in Little Miss Sunshine), the likes of ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ and ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ stand out as the real gems here: the former detailing in terrifying reality the exploits of the infamous serial killer of the same name, the latter examining a state holiday.
To any who doubt Sufjan’s lyrical potential, I implore you to examine this album in particular. Personal stories are intertwined with the intricate details of the state in a manner the demands study. The real triumph, however, is the ease at which the album flows. A powerful and formidable subject is treated with the utmost delicacy and is all the better for it.
Last year saw the release of Sufjan’s most recent work. The Age of Adz followed the All Delighted People EP, marking a move by Sufjan back toward his electronic tendencies. However, it was not wholly a return to his old methods – the lyrical and symphonic joy is still here to withhold.
Blending the various styles that have cropped over the course an engaging career, the Age of Adz includes a 25 minute long track (the incredible ‘Impossible Soul’), as well as a number that seem to be obsessed with the notion of communication. Stevens remarked, himself, that he has was “sick of the sound” of his own voice. The album shows a marked maturity, detailed on ‘Now That I’m Older’, as well as tackling his own fragility (he was struck down with a mysterious viral infection in the year before the album’s release)
On ‘Futile Devices’, Sufjan tackles the subject of songwriting, proclaiming that “words are futile devices.”
Often this can be the case, though not when it comes to a body of work of this ilk. Staggering variety, intricate and fragile details – undoubtedly, Sufjan Stevens is one of the most important and unique songwriters of his, and any, generation.