5am, coffee, and Sufjan Stevens...
Shortly before the Sufjan Stevens wave finally swept over and completely engulfed this great nation, I saw him at the Triple Door in Seattle -- it was a little over a year ago, right after the release of Illinois. I knew there was something exquisite going on there, but, at the time, I couldn't say quite what he was working toward.
I owned a vinyl copy of the singer's earlier record, Greetings from Michigan, for almost a year, but, because I rarely have the chance to listen to LPs, the album hadn't reached me on a personal level. Thus, I failed to understand its morose beauty and intense brilliance.
That all changed in the early fall of 2004. At the time, my newborn daughter was waking up between 4 and 5 am every morning. Since I had to leave early for work anyway, I was usually the one to get up in the morning with her. The early morning hours became my favorite vinyl-listening time, and I found myself pulling out that gigantic Michigan postcard sleeve time and time again. It was through these early morning sessions, with a pot of coffee and my one-month-old, that I began to understand what Sufjan Stevens is doing with his inimitable brand of classical-folk.
I pre-ordered Come On Feel the Illinoise! and scored a copy with the recalled Superman cover. I didn't have time to fully digest the new songs before the show at the Triple Door, but I could sense that something rather amazing was going to happen. And I was right: the "Illinoise Makers" and their Captain performed actual cheers between tracks from the album, giving literal shout-outs to people like Oprah Winfrey and Mike Ditka.
They opened with a "Fifty States" theme song, and the first encore was an anomalous rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Amidst the swelling public outcry against the President and his policies, Stevens had made it his mission to remind us of the beauty of America and (most of) its people. He was celebrating America without apologizing or making excuses for it.
Fast-forward to Monday, September 11, 2006: I sat in a sold-out Ryman Auditorium on a rainy night in the city my brother refers to as "Cashville" or "Nashvegas." Stevens' tour announcement had warned that this time around he was trading in the pom-poms for tuxedos. The idea was that he would abandon much of the camp and kitsch, taking a more serious, artistic approach. I was a little unsure of what to expect. Would the whimsical spirit be lost? Would that affecting glow that had warmed my early hours be consumed by a strange seriousness?
The show began with an almost unrecognizably epic version of "Sister," from Seven Swans. All the members of the horn and string sections -- about 17 musicians in all -- were wearing gigantic wings. Their leader wore an ornate pair of red-tail hawk wings that made it exceedingly difficult for him to maneuver.
When asked in interviews what state he will take on next in his epic attempt to release a record for every state in the union, Stevens has said, "It's a state of Christmas." Apparently, he has long since had a grim view of the holiday -- speculating journalists have linked it to some sort of harmful childhood experience. In any case, he's volunteered that the album is a way for him to exchange the commercialism of Christmas for something more meaningful.
He showcased a song from the forthcoming collection, hilariously titled That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!. Interestingly, Stevens chose this over the (in my opinion) far superior "Sister Winter". Both tracks are available for download from his label's website, and it is this second song that points to a different, and compelling new direction.
After a couple more from Illinoise!, Stevens introduced a new creation called "Majesty, Snowbird". This song is in every conceivable way a step forward. It relied more heavily on strings and piano and achieved a dramatic quality that he has not shown before.
With its dense rhythmic structure and cascading chorus, "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" is the only thing in to approach the grandeur of "Snowbird." The new song was a triumph, and, if it is any indication of the things to come, we are all in store for something remarkably different.
The encore was a special treat -- especially for the people sitting in the first few pews. Stevens came out with My Brightest Diamond (the opener) and banjo accompaniment for two more songs from Seven Swans. Both were performed acoustic, without any mics, and the respectful crowd remained astoundingly still through each.
When he reached the end of "To Be Alone with You" and sang the simple words, "to be alone with me you went up on the tree," Stevens raised his eyes to the back of the old Union Gospel Tabernacle Church. His previous tour had offered a rallying cry for those losing faith in America, this set was a personal testament; a pure offering of song.