Contemporary music is in dire need of a savior.
A true genius, in the vein of Wagner or Keats, can push the boundaries of artistic expression through song past its
false commercial limits. Pop music has rarely risen to the level
of true art. What we need now is a marriage of a singular voice,
a singular sound and a singular purpose: something that might raise the stakes a bit.
In the past 20 years or so there have been a number of attempts at resurrection, but few have had the complete ambition or the artistic power to truly have any lasting effect.
Enter Sufjan Stevens.
“Music is many things; I see it as a form of worship, expressing theological ideas, expressing heartbreak. The one thing I’m
certain about is the one thing I’m most insecure about. That’s kind of what loving is about, there’s a certain supernatural thing about love, but also something comforting in its vulnerability.”
This is no ordinary songwriter; his body of work reveals a reaching for literary, spiritual and transformative experience through song.
His latest effort, Illinois, is no exception. It pulsates with
a fervor for expression, for testing the limits of song as well as oneself. The song structures are perfectly fractured, the melodies unpredictable yet tightly woven and the songwriting style increasingly narrative.
“The [narrative] songwriting tradition goes back for centuries, I think I’m really part of that. All songwriters have to reckon with that very old tradition of storytelling, when we write we exhume a tradition.”
Through his stories on Illinois, Stevens reckons with issues of faith that prominently came to light on last year’s brilliant Seven Swans. On “Casmir Pulaski Day” the songwriter travels through a memory of a friend lost to cancer, he first questions than affirms his faith in the process. As is often the case, the musical progression mimics the experience of the lyrics. Yet these things are never truly explicit; though his faith is always a forceful undercurrent it is only one of the many issues he explores.
“I think culture generally is suffering a serious decline in values. But part of that is the commercialization of music and culture,
it makes art lose meaning, it devolves. Popular culture used to be opera or the theatre but today it’s advertisement.”
On the album’s most memorable track, “Come on and Feel the Illinoise,” a bombast of drums and strings evolves into a forcefully subtle melody as Stevens recalls a dream encounter with poet Carl Sandburg, “I was asked to improvise/on the
attitude, the regret of a thousand centuries of death,” effectively conveying a moment of inspiration.
Stevens’ literary aspirations are not unfounded in his personal history. In fact, they are a large part of who he is.
“I came to New York to be a writer, to publish,
to teach…that’s always been my dream…I remember reading Blake and Wordsworth as an undergrad and having
a moment of epiphany, I don’t know if it was hormones or
something, but they really affected me. This most recent record reinvigorated my interest in fiction writing.”
The Michigan born and raised child of six is a self-described “natural storyteller,” and admits that at times songwriting can be a constricting, yet enjoyable form.
“I find a great challenge in fitting a strange or difficult word into a song. Like “Bible Study” in “Casmir Pulaski,” I wanted to put that word into a song for so long, it’s such a mundane phrase, and you hear it a lot if you ever go to a church or a meeting or something, every time I sing that part of the song I want to laugh but then I remember it’s not funny.”
He’s not without a sense of humor, a fact that can often be lost in the discussion of the “importance” of his work. Stevens attempts to convey this through his live performances.
“We dress up as cheerleaders in our show, Fighting Illini,
I was so hoping that they would win the final four.
We’ve been working on cheers the last few weeks but I really feel like they aren’t very good, like we suck … sometimes people take me too seriously. When I’m on stage I’m an entertainer. ”
A song like “Decatur,” which is almost exclusively structured around the rhyming of words with Decatur over a simple banjo, reveals the enjoyment he derives from writing songs. Yet even then, the sincerity with which a somewhat silly line like “Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater/but Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator” is delivered undermines any
examination of the song as simply good fun.
His ambitious scope – he’s on album two of his 50 states project – can come across as haughty or impossibly grand at times.
Yet the singer himself is fully aware of the pressure and labels that come with his endeavor.
“Carl Sandburg – he was too explicit and sort of too
desperate to be the American voice, to somehow encapsulate the American vision. So his work doesn’t always stand the test of time because it seems pretentious. He’s at his best when he’s himself. That’s one of the problems I had, speaking to an entire
culture, but I realized that isn’t what I’m doing, it’s about myself and my story more than anything.”
It’s that drive and focus that affects the listener and makes Illinois personal. On “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” he admits, “I can’t explain the state that I’m in/the state of my heart,” underlining the true nature of his
expansive project. It is essentially about the power of self-
expression; sharing his singular voice and vision with the world.
As long as Stevens and others continue to explore themselves on this scale, there is still hope for pop music.