Sufjan Stevens recently announced his first solo album in five years, Carrie & Lowell. This list of 11 of the best songs in his eclectic catalog is sure to get you back in the Sufjan mood.
Eclectic singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens recently announced his first solo album in five years, Carrie & Lowell. The album, which is named after his mother and step-father, is said to be a return to his folk roots, with songs about "life and death, love and loss, and the artist's struggle to make sense of the beauty and ugliness of love." Though Stevens has not been quiet for the past five years, releasing music with his side project Sisyphus as well as composing music for ballets and films, the promise of a new, 11-track solo album is an exciting one. This list of 11 songs is sure to get us back in the mood ahead of the March 31st release of Carrie & Lowell.
Seven Swans, the follow-up to 2003’s Michigan, is decidedly stripped-down, focused more on Biblical imagery and stories than Stevens's inventive productions. Opening track “All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” sets the tone with its simple banjo-driven arrangement. It’s the rare four-chord song in Stevens’s catalog, but the repetition creates a hypnotic quality and intriguing mood. With the straightforward music, focus is put on the elegant vocal melody and devotional lyrics. Though this song is not directly Biblical like some other tracks on the album, the lyrics do read like Psalms. Stevens sings, “And I am joining all my thoughts to you / And I'm preparing every part for you” like a cantor leading his congregation.
After the success and critical acclaim of 2005’s Illinois, Stevens decided to release a full album of B-sides and extras from the recording sessions titled The Avalanche. Naturally, the set lacks the consistency and structure of a traditional album, but some of the music is just as breathtaking as what ended up on Illinois. “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” is frenetic and dense, with a steady pulse running throughout, thick layers of instrumentation, and mechanical shifts of meter. It captures the spirit of ‘70s Steve Reich, or perhaps more directly Terry Riley’s “In C”, infusing a modern edge and biting drive to the texture.
Just by listening to his music, one might not associate Stevens with Christmas. However, he has released multiple Christmas EPs for years, complied into two five-disc releases, 2006’s Songs for Christmas and 2012’s Silver & Gold. Songs for Christmas features three arrangements of “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, but it’s this first, most straightforward interpretation that has become his most memorable Christmas song. Driven by his simple banjo playing and soft vocals, the classic hymn is emotionally resonant and beautiful. Stevens manages to bring out the sadness and melancholy of these tunes, which is possibly why he’s more drawn to the older religious carols than to the Tin Pan Alley jazz standards. When he sings “Rejoice, rejoice” here, it’s as cynical and defeatist as the phrase can be sung.
If Stevens has had a break-out hit, it’s “Chicago" -- at least, this version of it. Three more interpretations were released on The Avalanche, including a subtle acoustic take, a schmaltzy “adult contemporary” version, and a jubilant pop-rock “Multiple Personality Disorder” version. All of them exert a youthful energy and positivity, not a quality usually associated with Sufjan Stevens. Throughout the song. he repeats the phrase “all things go”, a sort of pocket-sized life statement. The result is magical, with the Illinois version triumphing through its cinematic strings and memorable vibraphone riffs. The thick texture and group chanting brings “Chicago” the closest Stevens ever comes to Tthe Polyphonic Spree without giving into their psychedelia or forgoing his own idiosyncrasies.
In 2009, Stevens said, “I have no qualms about admitting it was a promotional gimmick” in regards to his Fifty States Project, which would ideally see the artist release an album about each of the 50 United States. Listening to the two he has released, though, I’m not sure I buy it. It’s unlikely that we’ll get any more state albums from the songwriter, but Michigan and Illinois are inspired, beautifully crafted works largely considered his two best albums. To chalk their origin up to marketing doesn't encompass the whole truth. Michigan opens with “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)”, whose simple piano chord opening ushers in the wistful atmosphere that fills the whole album. Somehow, the brilliance of Stevens allows him to make out-of-tune brass instruments playing a major scale wholly transcendent.