Friday, August 12, 2005

Superman Sufjan Stevens

Christian Rock. Christians in rock. Rockers who happen to be Christians. Mention those phrases and sharp line is drawn down the sand. NME and its ilk love to jump on the God squad as do-good Bible Bashers who can’t sing ‘Get your hands off my woman motherf****r’ and really rock out. But then the Christian right loves to rally around and complain about the secular industry who keeps sub-standard artists from the airwaves apparently because they’re Christians.

So Christians make their own record labels and in America there is a highly developed contemporary Christian music genre, a little clique all to its own. Occasionally someone is good enough to break out and receive some success, Jars of Clay were perhaps the last and U2 is a debate on its own, but every so often a Christian makes undeniably great music.

He’s called Sufjan Stevens.

Ok he’s been around for a bit. He released a few records on an indie label, had his first UK release last year with the overtly Christian Seven Swans, and has just released his second American state series, Illinois. You see last time he sung about Michigan, and joked in interviews that he would do all 50 states. Everyone thought he was a good sport, and low and behold it looks like he just might do it. Albeit there are 48 states left to go, but if these 2 are anything to go by, we’re in for a treat.

He approaches music and songwriting more like a bricklayer than Newton waiting for an apple. "I don't view myself as an artist; I view myself as a technician” he says. Illinois is 22 songs, 74 minutes and 30 instruments, its not as if he has any trouble filling every inch of the CD with music, and its not even filler.

His brand of folk/pop could draw comparisons with the contrived Devendra Banhart, and the song titles read like The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra. He has researched the peculiarities of towns like Jacksonville, prarie fires near Peoria and UFO sightings, captures the feel of the big cities and empty plains.

His music is uplifting, reminiscent of early Mull Historical Society, but with the lyrical intensity of Bright Eyes. He sings of progress and regress, hopes and regrets, sucides and killers and, over progressive listens, his faith emerges. “It's the most important thing in my life. It's unavoidable."

But instead of praise and worship, Stevens sings of grief, embarrassment, doubt and hope; themes that believers atheists alike can recognize. In ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ he struggles to recount how "Tuesday night at the Bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens."

After Seven Swans the focus began to shift from the music to the shock of a good ‘Christian artist’, a tag he may be trying to avoid by drawing attention to the states project.

I’ve been listening to it for a while now and I love it. I was bowled over by the simplicity and beauty of Seven Swans but am equally impressed by the orchestration, complexity and technicality of Illinois. Even more so as he played almost every note.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this is a really good record. And Stevens is devout in his faith. And the two can go together. And we shouldn’t be making a big deal of it.

Just a thought.

1 comment:

David Williamson said...

A brilliant article and a very fine observation. I'd like to hear more of this musician.