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Sufjan Stevens in 10 Songs

A crash course before the star-studded Planetarium lands later this week

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This article originally appeared in 2015. We’re republishing it in anticipation of Sufjan Stevens’ new collaborative album, Planetarium, out this week.

Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

It’s been 15 years since Sufjan Stevens first appeared on the music scene as a solo artist, but it’s still difficult to think of him as a real person. The man films videos of himself playing banjo on a farm with a curled baseball cap on his head. He dances awkwardly in neon duct tape and strands of lights. He faces audiences with a set of feathered wings strapped to his back four times the size of his body. Let’s not forget the handful of times he’s thrown Christmas shows, either, or the hundreds of inflatable elves he throws into the audience there, too. The man puts his heart into making his performance a full endeavor. Sometimes he’s cartoonish. Sometimes he’s overdramatic. No matter what, he gives it his all.

For one, Sufjan Stevens stays inexplicably busy. The banjo-toting singer-songwriter is busy off the tour route moonlighting as a dancer, a filmmaker, a composer, a collaborator, and a music fan himself. Those who catch him biking through New York City’s Prospect Park know he’s off to work on his next big project. His imagination is constantly running rampant. Instead of cowering in fear from ideas that don’t yet make sense, he throws himself at the drawing board, getting his hands dirty regardless of how much prior experience he has in a given field.

Sufjan Stevens

As he opens himself up to the world on Carrie & Lowell like we’ve never seen before, it’s important to step back and digest his career up until this point. When he’s talking about his family, his childhood, his teenagerdom, and growing up, he’s talking about the insoluble failures we all repeatedly run into in life. Without them, we wouldn’t learn to retaliate. Our wounds let us feel the air on our skin differently. All of that suffering comes from somewhere, and all of it can be used as a tool if funneled properly. Carrie & Lowell certainly isn’t the first outlet he’s run it through.

Sufjan Stevens is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. His music shines light on the power of horns, banjo, piano, and even religious themes as never heard before. He’s a giant within music. It’s not because of the quantity of work he puts out, although a 59-minute EP (All Delighted People) is no easy feat. Stevens is heralded for the comfort he brings us and the solitude he indulges in when we have no one else to turn to but are in need of a good cry — from happiness or depression or anything in between.

–Nina Corcoran
Senior Staff Writer

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Bible-thumping Lyrics

“To Be Alone with You” from Seven Swans (2004)

Although Sufjan Stevens doesn’t identify as a “Christian artist” per se, he does identify as Christian, and he has never been afraid to work out his own theological feelings through the medium of his music. Nowhere is this more evident than on 2004’s full-length Seven Swans. “To Be Alone with You” layers Stevens’ characteristic soft vocals over equally soft guitar strums, allowing the strength and simplicity of the lyrics to take center stage. Any ambiguity about who he’s addressing is done away with in the second verse when he sings, “You gave up a wife and a family/ You gave your ghost.” It’s something akin to a more somber, thoughtful reiteration of those “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts that were big a few years back, finding Stevens connecting on a deep level to the sacrifices that Jesus Christ made to be your personal lord and savior. –Katherine Flynn

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50 Great States

“Chicago” from Illinois (2005)

Sufjan Stevens’ much-talked-about and very ambitious plan to record an album dedicated to each of the 50 states never really made it out of the Midwest, but at least we have jangling, grand classics like “Chicago” (and the ambiguous, all-encompassing phrase “all things go” that has since been co-opted by Nicki Minaj) to show for this period in his artistic output. “Chicago” is, simply put, a slice of road trip perfection; it wholly encompasses the feeling of catching that first glimpse of the Windy City skyline as you approach on the highway, winding your way closer and closer to those tall buildings. Although Stevens later admitted that the 50 States Project had been a promotional gimmick that he was never likely to finish, this song’s longevity and place in the indie rock canon (thanks in no small part to its use in the 2006 road trip film Little Miss Sunshine, ironically set between New Mexico and California) have never been up for debate. –Katherine Flynn

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Backyard Banjo

“Seven Swans” from Seven Swans (2004)

Guys, remember that period of time before everyone and their brother was gunning hard for that folksy Mumford sound, and banjos still sounded fresh to our electric-guitar-conditioned ears? What a time to be alive. “Seven Swans” is about as delicate and beautiful a Sufjan song as they come, and it builds to a tender, powerful crescendo. If the refrain “I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord” wasn’t enough to tip you off, this song belongs soundly in the realm of the devoutly religious with the Biblical significance of both swans and the number seven as contributing factors. It’s not hard to picture Sufjan hunched over his banjo, orchestrating a grand vision of this piece of music that starts out sparse and ends up lush, rich, and about as close to an aural religious experience as anything else you’ll find in contemporary music. –Katherine Flynn

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Not Your Grandmother’s Piano Lessons

“Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” from Michigan (2003)

Welcome to the most haunting two-minute song you will ever hear. Although comprised of just a few simple piano chords and muted, humming vocals, “Redford (for Yia-Yia & Pappou)” manages to swiftly and effectively evoke all of the desecrated beauty of its namesake, a Detroit suburb that has seen just as much blight and chaos in the past few decades as any other town in the region. “Redford” is so stunningly perfect in how it evokes inner-city decay, in fact, that The Roots used it in their 2011 concept album Undun as the lead-in to a four-movement instrumental piece at its conclusion. (The fictional character at the center of the album’s narrative, Redford Stevens, was also named for the song.) –Katherine Flynn

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Electro Dance in Duct Tape

“Get Real Get Right” from The Age of Adz (2010)

Although 2010’s The Age of Adz marked a dramatic departure for Stevens in a sonic sense, finding him dabbling in unprecedented electronic beats, the lyrical content proved to hold some familiar themes. On “Get Real Get Right”, Stevens encourages listeners to “get right with the Lord” over foreboding synth notes, weaving together an ominous tune that’s far heavier and more thought-provoking than your standard dance-pop fare. Things kick into higher gear about two-thirds of the way through, with laser-beam blips and frantic beats underscoring the gravity of his message. “I must do myself a favor and get real, get right with the Lord,” becomes the refrain near the end, and you can’t help but wonder if the song’s lyrical and aural direness (it’s rife with mentions of rifles, rings of fire, prophets, dark ages, and snakes) is a metaphor for Stevens’ frame of mind when he wrote it. –Katherine Flynn

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Christmas Extravaganza

“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” from Ding! Dong!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. III (2006)

There’s a reason Sufjan Stevens has so many Christmas promo photos: the folk icon loves December like none other. From 2001 onward, Stevens has been releasing Christmas compilations of both traditional classics and original creations. Scour the web and you can find his unofficial releases, including Volume 8’s weird pit stop at an electronic North Pole. He’s done powerful covers of “O Holy Night”, “Joy to the World”, and “Silent Night”, but it’s his half-joyous, half-depressed new material that elevates the compilations to a cult-level worth coveting.

As wonderfully absurd as “Christmas Unicorn” is, it doesn’t hold a light to his 2005 original “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”. The banjo-toting tune sees Sufjan’s lush voice outlining a dysfunctional family Christmas. Reserved ambitions, runaway children, and burning presents subside for a beautiful refrain layering female harmonies with lonely piano. Before long, the story’s protagonist is comforted by the thought of the approaching spring. Sufjan lets out a sarcastic “Silent night, nothing feels right” before each instrument is slowly removed from the chorus until we’re left with nothing but the female vocalist’s pure, wandering melody. At least the Songs for Christmas box set comes with stickers, so not all the presents were lost. –Nina Corcoran

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Ballet Compositions

“Year of Our Lord” by Osso from Run Rabbit Run (2009)

In 2001, Sufjan released his second album ever, Enjoy Your Rabbit. The 14-track record is a song cycle inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac: rats, roosters, tigers, snakes. Most are frenzied and bubbly, using his electronic influence to sparkle like the aforementioned holiday. Eight years later, he sat down and reworked the album to be recreated using solely string instruments and then asked the Osso String Quartet to graciously perform them. With the new title Run Rabbit Run, it became a whole other creature. Sufjan then pushed his personal boundaries by adapting the work yet again in 2012, this time for dance.

The New York City Ballet performed to nine movements of orchestral and piano works titled “Year of the Rabbit” as choreographed by Justin Peck. The crowning number of the evening is “Year of Our Lord”, a sweeping five-minute reinvention that swells with violin and plummets from one note to the next, sliding slowly to stretch out the half notes in between. It’s an emotional and therapeutic masterpiece. It proved to be so successful that the two teamed up again in 2014 to put on another ballet titled “Everywhere We Go”, because Sufjan can’t help but get increasingly involved in the arts. –Nina Corcoran

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Casual Film Scores

“Movement VI — Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges” from The BQE (2009)

Living in the 20th century, we all come into contact with an insurmountable number of mediums. As such, Sufjan Stevens is tempted to try his hand with as many as possible. One of his best, and most challenging, is film.

There was a great bit of silence following the Fifty States Project until Sufjan came out from hiding to announce that he would be releasing The BQE in 2007. The project saw him put together an original film of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which he shot himself on Super 8 mm film and standard 16 mm film. To match the film, Sufjan got to work on a massive film score, pulling in a backing orchestra, percussionists, and horn players, ditching his wordy prose in favor of 30 minutes of intense flourishes that saw hula-hoopers twirling onstage. All 36 members gathered that year to perform live alongside the film.

“Movement VI — Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges” is one of the The BQE’s most digestible numbers. Beginning with a slow flute part that dances with piano, it quickly picks up speed, seeing a triangle and upright bass come along before merging on the highway alongside violins, timpanis, and oboes. His hard work got packaged as a multimedia set to purchase, including a DVD of the footage and a 40-page booklet of liner notes, photos, and a stereoscopic 3D View-Master reel. Fast-forward to 2015 and Sufjan Stevens was at it again, creating a score for Round-Up, a new short film on Oregon’s traditional rodeo, because the man can’t keep still. –Nina Corcoran

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Moving Covers

“Lakes of Canada” originally by Innocence Mission (2007)

When Sufjan Stevens decides to do a cover, he puts his entire heart and soul into it. R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” gets mushy, and Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” gets splashed with horns. Hell, he even gives “The Star-Spangled Banner” a heartbreaking Sigur Ros-style swell. His most heartfelt cover, however, is also his most spontaneous. It occurs as if by magic during one of La Blogotheque’s famous Take Away Shows in 2007. Then again, that’s why every Take Away Show is so special.

Lured up onto the rooftop of an old performance center in Paris, Sufjan is asked to play whatever he pleases. Wind slams against the camera’s speaker. He tries to start playing “He Woke Me Up Again” but stops abruptly, asking if they can move back inside because it’s too cold. After some pleading from the crew and a new coat, he launches into Innocence Mission’s “Lakes of Canada”. The scenic sounds consume you. He’s pacing back and forth on the fold of the roof, banjo hanging from his torso by a pair of tied shoelaces, doing his best to brave the gusts. Once done, he rubs his hands together to keep warm, smiles sheepishly, and descends back inside to play piano off camera. The snippet is an alternate version of the then-unreleased “The Owl and the Tanager”, closing a beautiful cover with an equally beautiful original. –Nina Corcoran

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Non-stop Collaborations

“Mercury” from Planetarium (2013)

As a staple of indie rock and folk from the millennium onwards, Sufjan Stevens is a sought-after man. To collaborate with him, unsurprisingly, is pure magic. His best work when partnered with others came in 2013 when working with The National’s Bryce Dessner and contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly to make a series of songs inspired by our solar system. The set, titled Planetarium, is a rich endeavor that varies in style per planet. It begins with atmospheric instrumental works, departs for analog keys, seven trombones, and raging sixteenth notes, and finally reaches Pluto for a chamber ensemble nod to the forgotten planet. For $25, the public were invited to see the three combine forces in a coveted performance that still racks up YouTube views to this day.

The best use of Sufjan’s talent comes when his falsetto voice is highlighted, specifically on “Mercury”. Dessner and Muhly guard his wistful words with powerful guitar and loving piano, soaring around the room with amazing ease. Joined by a guest quartet, the three use their otherworldly convergence of talents to bring art rock to the next level. It lifts you out of your seat into a space where the only thing you can feel is overwhelming lightness, wonder, and serenity. How do you close a night of outer space-themed variations like that? A cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, of course. –Nina Corcoran

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