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Sufjan Stevens

+ {Sisyphus} + {Planetarium}

Not many pop/rock artists can claim a plethora of music genres such as SUFJAN (pronounced “suifjain”) STEVENS. Born July 1, 1975 in Detroit, but raised from age nine in nearby Petoskey, Michigan, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, sitar, banjo, xylophone, piano, French horn, recorder, vibraphone, oboe, drums, etc.) initially cut his teeth with Marzuki, a folk band named after his famous marathon runner brother.
While attending Hope College, Holland, MI., he and his stepfather founded the Asthmatic Kitty imprint in 1999, an outlet that would produce STEVENS’ inaugural set A SUN CAME! (2000) {*8}. Having been brought up listening to ethnic folk music from the Middle East (his Christian name stems from old Persia and means “comes with a sword”), the record is a hotchpotch of global worldly folk sounds. Recorded on a 4-track, this superb debut opens with three gems, `We Are What You Say’, `A Winner Needs A Wand’ and the whispering `Rake’ (sometimes entitled `You Are The Rake’). However, the album turns into a different grungy, SONIC YOUTH direction by track 5 `Demetrius’ (and too the `The Oracle Said Wander’), while follow-on cues `Dumb I Sound’ and `Wordsworth Ridge’ receive a Celtic-rock twist. By track 9 (an unrecognisable JEFF BECK Group ditty `Rice Pudding’), things go a little haywire/DANIEL JOHNSTON-ish. Turning his back on folk and dipping at least five toes into electronica and indie-pop, pigeonholing the man becomes somewhat redundant through `A Loverless Bed (w/out Remission)’, `Super Sexy Woman’, `Happy Birthday’ and `Jason’. For the final three numbers (`Kill’, `Ya Leil’ and the title track), STEVENS returns to folky singer-songwriter mould. All in all, this somewhat schizoid set lasts for more than an hour, the re-issue with added bonuses, even longer.
ENJOY YOUR RABBIT (2001) {*7} was a radical escape from his inaugural pan-ethnic folk debut, this time around – basing it on signs of the Chinese zodiac – he opted for ambitious knob-twiddling aside from playful blips and bleeps. From first track proper `Year Of The Monkey’ to penultimate 13-minute cue `Year Of The Horse’, all on show here could be best described as OLDFIELD-esque or TOMITA-like. Augmented by a sparse array of musos: Liz Janes (occasional voice) and Tom Eaton (trumpet), Sufjan takes the first of many musical excursions – check out `Year Of The Snake’ at least.
Paying homage to his home state, GREETINGS FROM MICHIGAN: THE GREAT LAKE STATE (2003) {*7} was another enterprising display of rustic folk that edged between JIM O’ROURKE and STEREOLAB without going folk AWOL (example `All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!’ and a few others), while The DANIELSON FAMILE – Daniel, Megan and Elin – produced their mantra-minstrel harmonies to great effect. A throwback to the halcyon days of SIMON & GARFUNKEL (a big influence no doubt), `Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!’ and `Holland’ are just superb. The DANIELSON FAMILE-produced SEVEN SWANS (2004) {*7} continued his progress toward folk superdom. His musical road trip of ambitious proportions – he wanted to dedicate each album to a state and there was 50! – ploughed forward courtesy of the prog-folk-like COME ON FEEL THE ILLINOISE (2005) {*7}, a part orchestral set close to The POLYPHONIC SPREE rather than shape-shifting folk music. Hot on its heels was 2006’s THE AVALANCHE {*6} – actually outtakes of his previous double set.
Word of mouth of Sufjan’s exploits and by the long-awaited delivery of his next project(s) THE AGE OF ADZ (2010) {*7} and the accompanying 59-minute! ALL DELIGHTED PEOPLE EP {*6}, Sufjan was riding high in the Top 30. But folk music had been sacrificed for something to conceptual electro-orchestral manoeuvres in the studio – but he was the master of musical exorcism by far.
On the back of a couple of releases with trio SISYPHUS (alongside trip-hop artist SON LUX and rapper SERENGETI), namely the `Beak & Claw’ EP (2012) – as S/S/S – and the eponymous SISYPHUS (2014) {*6}, SUFJAN STEVENS returned to his indie folk roots on 2015’s CARRIE & LOWELL {*9}. Deeply affected by the death in 2012 of his mother Carrie and referencing his step-father Lowell, Sufjan stripped bare his inner emotions and sense of loss. Memory and melody merge into a melting pot of sadness and despair, but despite this the record achieves an uplifting and spiritual sentimentality (on `Death With Dignity’), even if `Fourth Of July’ takes its cue from the moody “end-of-the-world” concept of the Donnie Darko flick. Filmic and funereal in scope, one can almost touch hearts with the singer on the hymnal `Blue Bucket Of Gold’ (“Nights In White Coldplay” anyone?), `All Of Me Wants All Of You’, the SIMON & GARFUNKEL-ish `Eugene’, and the slightly explicit `No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’.
All of the above and a bit more besides, featured on the almost obligatory download-only concert, CARRIE & LOWELL LIVE (2017) {*7} – recorded November 9, 2015 at North Charleston Performing Arts Center, South Carolina – a simply fantastic outing from the opening `Redford (For Yia-Yia And Pappou)’ to encore `Hotline Bling (featuring Gallant).
Meanwhile, dispatched only a few months later, having showcased singles `Saturn’ and `Mercury’, a collective quartet led by STEVENS, plus classical composer Nico Muhly, guitarist Bryce Dessner (of The NATIONAL) and drummer James McAlister (ex-ESTER DRANG), launched the PLANETARIUM (2017) {*7} double-album project. Originally inspired by the solar system and commissioned, in 2012, to the aforesaid Muhly (by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven), the symphonic and celestial segments (all 17 of them) concentrated on virtually everything under the… `Sun’, `Venus’, `Jupiter’, `Uranus’, and the longest piece by far, `Earth’.
On the other side of the spectrum, if acolytes of “Carrie & Lowell” had ever wondered how the record could’ve wound up, then they only had to discover STEVENS’ re-imagining of it all under the absorbing warts ‘n’ all, THE GREATEST GIFT: MIXTAPE (2017) {*7} – one of the best of its kind.
Following on from relatively conventional download-singles, `Mystery Of Love’ (from the film Call Me By Your Name), `Tonya Harding’ (in homage to US figure-skating champion), `Lonely Man Of Winter’ and double-headed 7-inch `Love Yourself’ (b/w `With My Whole Heart’), STEVENS turned his hand to classical dance composition. And augmented by pianist Timo Andres, the pair were commissioned, in 2017, by New York City Ballet (and choreographer Justin Peck) to transfuse the “Ten Commandments” theme by way of the instrumental, THE DECALOGUE (2019) {*5}. Not Sufjan’s most awe-inspiring set of tracks, it allowed him to take a back seat in order to allow Timo to portray something reminiscent of KEITH EMERSON or RICK WAKEMEN in the heyday.
Maintaining a thematic link with vintage film music and/or ambient/new age, STEVENS decided to cut ‘n’ paste works he’d jammed with his step-father, Lowell Brams, who’d just retired from co-running Asthmatic Kitty, and the guy who’d bought young Sufjan his first keyboards et al. Devotees of the main man’s delicate singing voice would be a little disappointed with 2020’s APORIA {*7} and its all-encompassing chamber-rock flourishes; likened to ENO, TANGERINE DREAM, MIKE OLDFIELD or ANDREAS VOLLENWEIDER. Putting these minor quibbles to one side, Krautrock-era disciples might well enjoy the noodling of `Afterworld Alliance’, `What It Takes’, `The Unlimited’, `Glorious You’, the uplifting `Climb That Mountain’, the spine-tingling `The Runaround’, and the all-too-brief, DURUTTI COLUMN-esque `Ataraxia’.
© MC Strong 2003-2011/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Apr2015-Apr2020

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