Where To Start With... Sufjan Stevens
There are pretty much three camps of opinion when it comes to singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, which can loosely be expressed as “I haven't heard of him”, “I don't get it” or “I will kill you for a ticket to one of his concerts”.
Detroit has produced more than its fair share of musical geniuses over the years across a number of genres, from the legendary Motown stylings of Stevie Wonder, through the pioneering techno of Derrick May, to the uber-prolific hip-hop output of the late, great J Dilla. Despite the obvious diversity of styles on offer here, what all of these artists have in common is the fact that they are unique within their fields, and Sufjan Stevens is no different in this regard. Name another artist who has co-founded a record label with his step-dad. You can't, can you?
It's not just the business end of things that marks Stevens out from his peers though; there's also his aphorism for the big concept, his appearance on stage and, perhaps most importantly, his musical output. This is a man who before this year had released only three singles in his fifteen-year music career. For context, in that time he has also released not one, but two Christmas albums, and this really isn't a novelty act we're talking about. Go figure...
His next offering, arriving next Monday (March 30th), will be his seventh studio album proper, entitled Carrie & Lowell. Where 2010's Age of Adz was a largely electronic affair, this time around he's gone back to his indie-folk roots and, as a record that is dedicated to the death of his mother and her relationship with his aforementioned step-father, it's perhaps his most most personal record to date. For the avoidance of doubt, the opening track on Carrie & Lowell is called 'Death With Dignity'. Make no mistake, this is Stevens at his most honest, his most raw, and his most spine-tinglingly effective.
Fans of Stevens will be too busy clamouring to get their hands on the new LP to listen to us rattling on about what it actually sounds like, but for the new initiates to Stevens' music we've put together this handy bite-sized introduction to his best moments over the last decade and a half. By the time you're done reading, you'll either be saying “I don't get it” or “I will kill you for a ticket to one of his concerts”, but you won't be able to say “I haven't heard of him” any more, and that's better for everybody...
'We Are What You Say'
Starting from the beginning, our first pick is the opening track from Stevens' debut LP, A Sun Came, released back in 2000. The song's twinkling guitars and ukuleles are juxtaposed by some medieval-sounding flute work, giving a very folky feel to this gorgeous little ditty. Give the ambitious range of instrumentation Stevens would go on to use in much of his later work, this is a pretty stripped back affair, but it does give you the sense right from the outset that this is a songwriter who approaches things a little differently.
'Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie'
Although it's one of the shortest tracks from 2003's Michigan, 'Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie' is a beautiful little interlude that begins with an organ and shimmering brass, before building, building some more and climaxing in a huge crescendo of kitchen sink orchestration, then fading away with the faint sound of crickets in the long grass. It's wonderful.
'To Be Alone With You'
Probably one of his best-known songs thanks to its inclusion in The OC's soundtrack, this is Sufjan Stevens at his most-stripped back. Just acoustic guitars and vocals, it's not nearly as ambitious as some of the more grand arrangements you'd expect from him, but it's no less effective. The result, which appears on Seven Swans, is a delicate and heartfelt moment that shows the strength of his songwriting and proves he doesn't need to layer dozens of instruments to pull off a great tune.
From it's delicately spooky vibraphone intro to its layered strings and big, sing-along hook, this is probably one of our favourite ever Sufjan Stevens songs. Taken from 2005's Illinois, 'Chicago' echoes everything from Eels to the Beach Boys and The Free Design, weaving in Stevens' typically idiosyncratic yet heartfelt lyrics along the way: “We sold our clothes to the state / I don't mind / I've made a lot of mistakes / In my mind.”
If you only listen to one song on this list, make it this one.
The opening track from 2010's The Age of Adz isn't really a typical representation of the rest of the album, which finds Stevens at his most experimental, but where the rest of the LP is filled with baffling electronica circa Dan Deacon or The Books, he begins with this, a dreamy tapestry of arpeggiating guitars and tinkling pianos that completely lulls you into a false sense of security before all hell breaks loose.