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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.
11. “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” (Seven Swans, 2004)
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.
10. “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” (The Avalanche, 2006)
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.
9. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (Songs For Christmas, 2006)
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.
8. “Chicago” (Illinois, 2005)
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.
7. “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” (Michigan, 2003)
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.
6. “Futile Devices” (The Age of Adz, 2010)
Stevens’s most recent solo album is 2010’s The Age of Adz, a marked departure away from his folk roots and into more experimental electronic realms. He has since continued on in this trajectory with his band Sisyphus in the intervening years. Most of The Age of Adz‘s songs are aggressive and abrasive, refocusing his emphasis on texture to more visceral sounds like those he explored on his early albums. Much fuss has been made, rightly so, over the 25-minute epic that closes the album, “Impossible Soul”, but the quiet, unassuming “Futile Devices” which opens the album has always stuck out to me, perhaps because of its stark contrast from the rest of the music. A lush texture is created by layers of finger-picked guitars and plucked piano strings. He ends the song abruptly after the line “words are futile devices”, a harbinger of the sound-over-substance album that follows.
5. “Vito’s Ordination Song” (Michigan, 2003)
“Vito’s Ordination Song” closes Michigan with a repeated chant, “Rest in my arms / Sleep in my bed / There’s a design / To what I did and said.” It’s the perfect send-off to the album, capturing the folksy spiritualism of the songs and building to what is likely Stevens’ most anthemic moment. “Vito’s Ordination Song” is another one of the simpler songs in his catalog, but its simplicity is a large part of its charm. The same out-of-tune brass that accompanies “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” returns here for more major scales towards infinity, making the tracks powerful bookends for Michigan.
4. “Casimir Pulaski Day” (Illinois, 2005)
Much of the beauty of the two state albums comes from Stevens’ use of historical, cultural, and geographic references as backdrops to personal, emotional stories of human interaction. On “Casimir Pulaski Day”, Stevens tells a story about a lover battling cancer who dies on Casimir Pulaski Day, a holiday celebrated in Illinois on the first Monday of March paying tribute to the Revolutionary War hero. Stevens wrestles with his feelings of love, shame, and religious guilt over their troubled relationship. Paired with the stripped down banjo arrangement and a straightforward vocal delivery, “Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of Stevens’ most relatable and emotionally powerful songs.
3. “From The Mouth of Gabriel” (All Delighted People EP, 2010)
Outside of the title tracks, the All Delighted People EP is filled with shorter, quieter efforts, including what is the standout track for most, “Heirloom”. But I’ve repeatedly found myself drawn to “From The Mouth of Gabriel”, with its evocative, beautiful lyrics and melodies. Stevens has always excelled at idiosyncratic arrangements and orchestrations that give his music the unique quality it has, and this tune is a perfect example of that. It’s a relatively simple song in terms of chords and structure — at least, it is for Stevens — but the texture in the background is constantly shifting. Toy pianos, pulsing synths, flutes, piccolos, and clarinets swirl around behind his plaintive vocals.
2. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” (Illinois, 2005)
It’s a hard task to create a piece of art that makes the audience feel sympathy for a man who raped and murdered at least 33 teenage boys, but that’s exactly the kind of miracle Stevens manages to pull off here. The song’s aim is not to convince you to forgive Gacy; instead, it attempts to humanize this most monstrous of men. In the final verse, Stevens flips the narrative back on himself, singing “And in my best behavior / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid.” This is likely not a confession to murder from Stevens, but rather an acknowledgement that Gacy, who suffered from Antisocial Personality Disorder, was emotionally and physically abused by his father as a child in addition to being molested by a family friend at age nine, and as a result he was perhaps just not equipped to handle the stress of life in the same way that we are. Musically, it’s one of Stevens’s most evocative and haunting tracks. His voice trembles throughout, on the verge of tears, but never becoming heavy-handed or didactic. Placed towards the beginning of Illinois, it sets an dark tone for the rest of the album.
1. “All Delighted People” (All Delighted People EP, 2010)
The title track of Stevens’s 2010 All Delighted People EP comes in two versions. There’s the lush, rhapsodic “Original Version” and a slightly stripped-down “Classic Rock Version”, the title of which seems to be something of a joke, given the track’s reliance on banjos and brass sections as well as its eight-minute length. By including two interpretations of the song on the same EP, Stevens highlights the strength of the songwriting and further emphasizes his immense musical creativity by showing how radically different he can imagine the same song. “All Delighted People” quotes the Simon and Garfunkel classic “The Sounds of Silence” as a recurring motif, matching the song’s “existential ennui”. The “Classic Rock Version” ends in an extended jam section with dueling synth and guitar solos, but the “Original Version” gets taken over by cinematic strings, climbing dissonantly towards infinity in its final moments.