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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: A Sun Came


1) We Are What You Say; 2) A Winner Needs A Wand; 3) Rake; 4) Siamese Twins; 5) Demetrius; 6) Dumb I Sound; 7) Wordsworth's Ridge; 8) Belly Button; 9) Rice Pudding; 10) A Loverless Bed (Without Remission); 11) Godzuki; 12) Super Sexy Woman; 13) The Oracle Said Wander; 14) Happy Birthday; 15) Jason; 16) Kill; 17) Ya Leil; 18) A Sun Came; 19) Satan's Saxophones; 20) Joy! Joy! Joy!; 21) You Are The Rake.

General verdict: Pleasant, inoffensive muzak to get by on. Lazy summer morning for perfect configuration.

First and foremost, let us get this bias out: it is hard for me to tolerate artists who produce frickin' eighty-minute albums on a regular basis. Eighty minutes — this is only ten minutes shorter than the entire White Album, and if you are just one lonesome singer-songwriter and not, say, a multi-headed mastodon like Chicago, you have to be one hell of a musical titan to pull it off successfully. Is Sufjan Stevens that kind of titan, or is it simply that he is really called Sufjan which gives him that kind of confidence?

We will try to answer this question gradually and tolerantly, fully understanding that his first record, A Sun Came, released in 2000 on his own independent label Asthmatic Kitty (already a factor in his favor — how can you have anything against asthmatic kitties?), was exactly that — a first record. However, it was already eighty minutes long, with 18 songs and three brief spoken links on it, and has therefore to be taken seriously, as an ambitious statement from an aspiring young artist. In fact, other than length, it already has many of the elements that would charac­terize Sufjan's «mature» work: eclecticism, prettiness, psychedelia, and the man's usage of his voice as an «undercurrent» rather than an outstanding instrument. Oh, and multi-instrumentalism, of course, as Stevens is credited for playing more than 20 different instruments here, probably breaking any records set by Paul McCartney, Roy Wood, Prince, or any other of those suckers.

On the other hand, at this point there is still relatively little to distinguish the results from the average... well, let's say the average art-pop representative of the flourishing indie community. Some of these songs sound close to Neutral Milk Hotel, some to Wilco, some to Flaming Lips, and others to a hundred different acts by Nineties' heroes. Word of the day is diversity: if there is one underlying theme to the album, it is in its mixture of Western, Eastern, modern, and medieval elements, as Sufjan is bravely attempting to condense space and time to the density of one laser disc. Had the project been truly successful, an eighty-minute running time might have been fully welcome. Unfortunately, since it is a project by Sufjan Stevens, it has a very odd model of success built into it, to put it mildly.

In a way, the very first song on the very first Sufjan Stevens album already hints at everything that is good and bad about the man, despite, naturally, not being typical of his output as a whole. A sympathetic Celtic groove, wound in a thick rope of banjo, acoustic guitar, woodwinds, and God knows what else, it takes you on a soft, careful, elegant, yet not particularly exciting merry-go-round — looped for over five minutes without an explicit reason; the addition of still another layer of instruments halfway through gives the illusion of a monumental crescendo, but essen­tially it's just an extra bunch of stoned fairies wobbling around the sacred stones. The lyrics toy with all sorts of religious imagery without ever getting across any specific points, and they are delivered in Sufjan's nice, windy, butter-melting voice — according, I guess, to his strict principle that a truly spiritual singer should be, um, felt rather than heard. The result, for me, is meandering: this is neither authentic Celtic folk, nor truly interesting Celtic-based art-folk or whatever. Super­ficially, it is pretty, well-arranged, and geared for emotional uplift. On the inside, however, it feels like an empty, derivative, calculated gesture that, at best, proves its author's love with his influences — but not his ability to improve upon them.

Regardless of how many different styles are explored on the rest of the record, their «core» is always the same. Sufjan's music — at this initial point at least — is highly static, with most of the songs establishing a (generally familiar) groove and then riding, riding, riding it for 3–6 minutes as the man adds his softly whispered, barely comprehensible, symbolist-absurdist lyrics on top. The groove may come from alt-folk territory (ʽA Winner Needs A Wandʼ), or from watered-down stoner rock (ʽDemetriusʼ), or from piano balladry (ʽDumb I Soundʼ), or from acidic trip-hop (ʽA Loverless Bedʼ), or even from Islamic territory (ʽYa Leilʼ), but they are all slow, sludgy, quiet (sometimes to the point of lethargy), and fertilized by the Holy Ghost of St. Sufjan as it glides across these grooves, barely getting its ghostly feet wet.

There is exactly one song on the album that breaks away from this formula, and, unsurprisingly, this is also the one song that people tend to dismiss from the start — because ʽSuper Sexy Womanʼ is essentially a musical joke, where Stevens records two vocal tracks, one in his regular voice and another in a hokey falsetto, and, instead of something holy, sings about a lady with "superhuman thighs" and "superpower hips, for super reproduction" who will "shoot a super fart, the deadly silent kind". Shamefully and perversely, this is the only song from this album that managed to register on my radar, and I would not feel embarrassed about memorizing it had everything else been good.... as it is, a situation in which the album's crude joke relief is more memorable than its prime content is a dire situation indeed.

Well, okay, there is also the case of ʽSatan's Saxophonesʼ, two and a half minutes of atonal jazz that not a single human being would have a single decent reason for listening to — this guy ain't Albert Ayler, and even if he were as good as Albert Ayler, there would still be no reason to hear him engage in two and a half pointless minutes of Aylerisms. Unless we are supposed to interpret it as a free-form intro to the album's liveliest track, the dance-pop anthem ʽJoy! Joy! Joy!ʼ which still somehow manages to sound sludgy and lethargic. Perhaps that kaleidoscopic panorama of electronic samples circling around the blandly chanted "I believe in peace, I believe in peace" is supposed to cause some psychedelic epiphany — I just find it completely empty of any emotional content, like most of this album.

That said, if you are a big fan of Stevens and happen to be working your way backwards after having already been indoctrinated with Illinois and / or Carrie & Lowell, by no means stay away: sure, all of this material is melodically less challenging than Illinois and substantially less attrac­tive and accessible than Carrie, but the man's basic sunny viewpoint is already established, and you are guaranteed to find enough vibes here to carry you through. My own organism simply does not operate on this kind of frequencies — the «bland» kind, as far as I'm concerned.

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