while looking through the various mp3s on my computer a few days ago (and believe me, there are lots of em), I found sufjan steven's first record, a sun came
, living happily on my hard drive. I've forgotten why I copied it in the first place, but there it was, unlistened to. so I listened. and discovered a completely different world of sufjan stevens. most of the reviews that I've read of his music talks about his minimalist tendencies, but I'd very rarely found it within the music of his I'd heard. there was one song in the encore of the show that was very minimalist, but still suffered from sufjan, inc, style arrangements. a sun came
shows sufjan reveling in repetition, growth, and change. each song here includes some kind of hypnotic, repetative drone, an effect that works quite nicely. he played almost every instrument on this album, recorded in 1998, a remarkable feat in and of itself given the variety of the record. but it also means that sufjan very carefully calculated every note that we hear. over the course of almost 80 minutes, sufjan dabbles with more genres and styles than on all the rest of his records - there are irish sounding flutes, sonic youth-esque noise jams, middle-eastern oboes, sparse keyboard numbers, unselfconsciously silly one-offs, and even a free-jazz send up for good measure. the reviews I've read find this scattering effect to be a drawback, but I see it as a strength. it shows that sufjan was, at least at that point, thinking about all the various possibilities of musical expression. I only hope that for whatever state he picks next to attack, he decides to go back to the musical restlessness and exploration that he does here.
I'm back. my hiatus from posting here has been much too long. but I swear that from now on I'll have lots of things to say. so to start out with, I'll begin with one of the most strangely positive musical experiences I've had in a while. this being a sufjan stevens show in my new home of chicago, il.
I'm not a huge fan of his. never really have been. his songs are enjoyable, but are lacking in some kind of heft in my book. the worldplay is silly, but somewhat trite (see momus for a case of the opposite); his melodies are all fundementally the same; the arrangements are a overwraught; and he seems to have figured out exactly what his audience wants to hear and has meticulously created albums to do that. In a way, he is a musical equivalent to wes anderson - someone who forever wants to be childlike and knows precisely what his audience wants to see. I once commented that they both seem fairly immasculated, but I'm going to take a step back from that and merely say that I think they both in their most recent works, seem to be trying to express the view of an overgrown child. that, and I like wes anderson a whole lot. this may be nothing new to independent music, going back to k records and before, but it's something that fits best in the k records setting, with ineptly played instruments and awkward singing. it's the rough edges that make perpetual childhood and when you remove them it rings false much in the same way that (some) 60s folky recreations of harry smith's anthology do. or (to relate back to wes anderson) in the way that seu jorge's solo material reeks of worldbeat flatness while his bowie covers from life aquatic
are nothing short of amazing. now, I'm not saying that denser production values are a bad thing, just that they have to be used in the right way. and on illinois
, sufjan didn't use them right.
so fast forward to last saturday at the metro in chicago where a packed house hung on pretty much every word or action sufjan said/did. I was skeptical at first (like I always am), especially when they (sufjan's illinoise makers, an 8-strong crew of singers, drummers, trumpeters, guitarists, and more) all walked out in matching cheerleader outfits with sufjan in a jumpsuit that would work best on evil knievel. they did a group cheer, then jumped straight into the music. then they did some more cheers, more songs, and so forth, playing almost every real song on illinois
, never once breaking character. they even kept the act going into the encore in their street clothes. it was an impressive commitment to a shtick that actually made it kind of work. normally, this whole setup would probably have driven me crazy, but for some reason that night I was in the right mental state to be totally receptive to everything that came from the stage. I ate it up. all my criticism of the songs remained, but for one night, they didn't matter in the least. it was almost a religious experience, which is I'm sure what sufjan was after. we all left happy and glowing, with the (slightly inane) lyrics from "chicago" or that great syncopated riff from "jacksonville" bouncing around our heads.
I'm not sure if this is an experience that can be repeated. which probably makes it the ideal concert experience. but now I can never see him live again, because I'll revert to my normal hypercritical, anti-hipster self. but for one night, riding my bike to a concert with a bunch of friends and hearing carefully crafted grownup-children's songs was perfect.