December 22, 2009

albums of the decade (X)

Sufjan Stevens
- Greetings from Michigan (Asthmatic Kitty, 2003)
- Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre, 2004)
- Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005)

No commemorative decade-ending music list would be complete without at least a nod to Sufjan Stevens, who, in his current state of musical/identity confusion, confessed that the "50 States Project," which seemed to preface everything anyone ever wrote about him, was an elaborate marketing ploy. A joke that most of his admirers defended: "Sure he can do it. Sufjan Stevens can do anything!" That wasn't me, by the way. Well, maybe at first.

As a testament to the man's uniquely ambitious vision, Paste Magazine named Illinois the album of the decade. A bit of a surprise, but then again Paste has never tried/succeeded in being representative with their lists. Illinois was (and still is) my favourite album of 2005. It was everything I'd hoped it could be (from the chilling portrait of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." to the crisis of faith in "Casimir Pulaski Day," the cool swagger of "Jacksonville," the family-trip nostaligia of "Decatur, Or, Round of Applause for your Stepmother!" and "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," which weaves in and out of tender folk harmonies and garage rock in the most inspiring way); and it also helped that my summer highlight was a family road trip to Chicago. Calling it epic doesn't really do it justice. But even after the universe had seemingly aligned in the summer of 2005, I still find that, when push comes to shove, I'm more partial to Seven Swans. Listening straight through the bells and whistles of Michigan, and especially Illinois, is like consuming too much sugar. Stevens is, I think, best without all the pomp. Sure he's a talented and inspired composer. Sure he went for something massive (the life, the history, the feeling of two huge American states) and surpassed our expectations of what a theologically sensitive indie-folk artist could accomplish in 70 minutes. But even so, if I'm going to be honest about my own listening experience, Seven Swans has always impressed me more. It's still weird and surprising; it's more overtly relgious, eerier and sparser: it's an album I have to listen to all the way through every time.

In my second year at university, I used to put on "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" when I had to wait for bus on Sunday mornings. It's an ideal song of preparation: a song about readying yourself for worship and communion. In fact, I'm pretty sure if I was teaching a class on theology and worship (which will certainly never happen), I'd include this on the syllabus. "In the Devil's Territory" is another song about orienting ourselves and opening our hearts; and if I was ever teaching Kierkegaard (another highly unprobable reality), I'd definitely include "Abraham," through which Stevens hauntingly recasts Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac: Kierkegaard's illustration to prove his point about a "teleogical suspension of the ethical" that brought about by a truly religious calling. Probably the two most affecting songs for me, "Sister" and "We Won't Need Legs to Stand," resonate because of their hopefulness, their acceptance and assurance of healing through broken relationships and physical disadvantages.

Stevens has always drawn comparisons to literary figures. The great Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor, with whom Stevens wisely positions himself, is an obvious influence, with her emphasis on the grotesque, her unflinching exploration of human and divine violence: someone who employs Christian mechanisms in her narratives without cheapening or sentimentalizing them. But I think Stevens also shares some similarity with the metaphysical poets of early modern England (Donne, Herbert, Marvell, etc.). To ask a question like, "What do these songs have to say about religion?" is wrong from the get-go. Stevens isn't commenting on the Christian faith: he's actually working out his own salvation in his music. This isn't some abstract theoretical exploration: the debate is performed and embodied through his music.

Michigan was Stevens' third album, a tribute to his home state. It features one of Stevens' most beautiful songs, "For the Widow in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," but it also contains a lot of pain, for as many well know, Michigan is a broken state, weighed down by poverty ("Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid"), and an economy hollowed out by corporate interest ("The Upper Peninsula"). It's a good companion to Michael Moore's wry documentary, Roger and Me, but I think Steven's songs ring truer. Maybe it's because he still unabashedly hopeful.

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