traumatic harmony
the pataphysical study of randomized sound
9.21.2005
Sufjan Stevens

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. 
Comments:
i'm glad you enjoyed yourself, but saddened you had to write something like this. happy moments should be happy, not re-hashed so that they don't mean anything. because by saying you inherently don't like nor respect his music you just left it at a mood, an experience, a moment, and gave sufjan no credit. and he deserves all of it, since he was what made the experience enjoyable. i really am gald you got over your previous notions of him and our numerous arguments over it, but i think you could give him a little more credit than that- and instead are just covering your hypocracy with calling it a "fluke". just face it- you liked it. so like it.
 
It's so good to see you blogging again at this site! No disrespect to Kelsey, but I must agree with your summation of Sufjan Stevens. I really enjoyed the Michigan album and was excited about the Illinois project. My responses to music of all kinds tends to be excessively emotional and subjective, so sometimes I don't trust my first impressions. Granted, the day I bought and first listened to the Illinois album was not a good day: it was my [almost] fortieth birthday; my mother had recently broken her back in 2 places and I wanted to spend that weekend helping her out but my mother-in-law misunderstood and thought I didn't want to visit with her so my husband and the boys went to the beach with her instead and received almost hospitalization-worthy sunburns... oh! Did I mention that I also had to put my ailing cat to sleep the following day? Anyway... I think the Wes Anderson analogy is very apt, because, listening to the Illinois album, I felt manipulated in the same way I feel manipulated when I see a film that is ruthlessly tugging at my heart-strings and trying hard to elicit overwrought emotions from me! I found the orchestration of each song so overblown, and the lyrics so glib, rather than intimate and thought-provoking the way they were on the Michigan album. The entire album lacked generosity. Also, almost all of the songs are in 4/4 time -- with the occasional 5/7 time signature that he already exhausted on Michigan! I really felt betrayed by "Come On, Feel The Illinoise!", in sharp contrast with the beaming reviews it has received almost across the board!
So I end my rant... How's Chicago? I miss your WPRB show! I listen -- almost exclusively -- to Lizbot, Daniel DiMaggio, and Brian Farmer these days, because they tend to focus less on the "thing of the moment" and more on the eccentric stuff! I miss you, and your often "eccentric stuff"!!!
 
Hey Dan, what's up? I found your blog through MySpace and am totally fascinated by this posting. I've been listening to Illinoise a lot, especially while drawing. My boyfriend introduced it to me. On Sunday I listened to "Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream" 7 or 8 times in a row, which is unusual for me. I think it's almost perfect. But it's troubling, and I think you have a handle on why.

The thing is, at some level, I think no more nor less than that the music is just fucking good. But I think that about Wes Anderson movies, too. And I like the distinction/ connection you make. It's true, they're both totally manipulative, but does that matter? They're like good figurative painters after painting was declared dead: they know their craft, and they're traditionalist, but there's an unmistakeable self-consciousness that curbs the freshness of the sympathy they inspire. I think you're on to something when you say they're like adult children, because it is as if they're trying to recapture, over and over, some authentic emotion, without ever succeeding. But isn't this failure itself genuinely poignant?
 
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7/29/2008

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