Ambitious. Grandiose. Experimental. Orchestral. Eclectic.
I believe that all of these words accurately describe one of my absolute favorite artists, Sufjan Stevens. Some might also include terms like pretentious, over-the-top, or eccentric. Though I wouldn’t consider the music or individual of Sufjan to be pretentious, I can agree that the style and scope of his work is not very everyone. Upon first hearing his album ‘Illinois’ in college, I was not immediately taken by the exuberant and overwhelming sound of Sufjan. Much like a bottle of fancy wine or smelly cheese (forgive the crappy similes–I don’t really like wine or cheese, for that matter) I needed to give the record some time to age on me. Given this time, however, I came to realize that beyond his slightly strange nature and bubbly sound existed a highly gifted musician and a genius composer.
‘Illinois’ is a masterpiece. A concept album with beautiful orchestral music and powerful lyrics based on personal stories (not his stories–but engaging ones nonetheless) and historical references, I would be shocked to see him create anything else that comes near to this achievement. I do think it might be unfair to downplay his remaining body of work, which may not measure up to this particular album, but displays his ability in a multitude of ways.
‘Michigan’ is the album that precedes ‘Illinois,’ and is the most similar in terms of construction and overall feel. This very well might be because it is a similar concept album (both focusing on their respective states–obviously). I just think that Sufjan was in a particular place in his evolution as an artist, and both of these albums demonstrate that. Before ‘Michigan’ he wrote ‘Seven Swans,’ which has more of a soft, acoustic feel, but very well might be the most sensitive and emotional of all his albums. The ‘All Delighted People EP’ was very, very good, and came after ‘Illinois.’ I think that Sufjan took some steps away from the type of music he created in his previous two concept albums, but for the most part created a similar product.**
Having become a huge fan of his music, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered he was to release a new full-length album in October 2010. The result was not what I expected and I was initially disappointed. ‘The Age of Adz’ was ambitious, grandiose, experimental, orchestral, and eclectic, but it was also largely electronic (a genre I never listened to). However, much like my experience with ‘Illinois,’ I found that time and repeated listens made the album thoroughly more enjoyable and quite an experience. While I still prefer ‘Illinois,’ I love ‘The Age of Adz’ and cannot wait to see what Sufjan Stevens thinks of next!
**I could have mentioned a few other instrumental, seasonal, and “extra” albums that consist of material not included on previous albums (demonstrating his ability to put out not only quality, but quantity as well), but I will refrain from doing so. At the very least, please find a copy of ‘Illinois’ and give it a try. It really is an amazing album.