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Discography Deep Dive: Sufjan Stevens. Plus, seeing Bob Dylan live for the first time.
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Discography Deep Dive: Sufjan Stevens
There’s a childlike curiosity and a disarming openness to Sufjan Stevens’ songs. Whether he’s paring down his songs to their sparsest arrangements to process his mother’s death for 2015’s Carrie and Lowell, wrestling with God via Seven Swans banjo plucks in 2004, channeling the personal and civic histories of U.S. states into whimsical epics with 2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Illinois, or turning gleeful electronic experiments inward on 2010’s The Age of Adz and 2020’s The Ascension, this sense of wonder makes his adventurous catalog alive. He feels everything unselfconsciously: grief, sorrow, euphoria, faith, and loves platonic, romantic, or spiritual.
His songs have been one of the few constants in my life since the light switched on and I became obsessed with music. Not many artists have been able to find me during such a formative period and keep my rapt attention while being so beguiling, wildly creative, and unpredictably consistent. At 31, I feel the same way I do about his songwriting as I did at 13. When I listen to him, I realize music can be a miracle, that it contains limitless possibilities, and is the closest tangible thing we have to whatever you want to call the divine. His latest album Javelin, a career-best, reinvigorated the spark I felt almost two decades ago. For the past month, I decided to start from the beginning and revisit almost everything he’s ever done for this edition of Discography Deep Dive (Triple D) in the newsletter.
Going through his body of work was such a rewarding and emotionally intense experience. For one, Sufjan’s music can be unbearably sad and cathartic. There’s a reason why when Javelin came out, my friends joked on Twitter about taking a sick day so they could process a new release from him—especially since he’s currently battling Guillain-Barré syndrome in the hospital and dedicated the LP to his late partner Evans Richardson IV, who died in April. Beyond the empathy he inspires, deeply listening to an artist whose music has been a constant presence in your life always brings up uncomfortable memories. You remember who you were when you first heard these songs, how you were hurt and lonely, and how this music uncovered part of you that you didn’t know existed: a capacity to dream and to feel something bigger than you’re capable of expressing.
Like Sufjan, I was born and raised in Michigan but unlike him, I’ve spent almost half of it living in Chicago, the city that shares the name of his most famous song. The people I grew up with in my home state were disproportionately evangelical Christians from conservative families. Because I was raised as a casual Catholic, I never shared the zealous Protestant religious fervor that’s ultra-common in West Michigan but the way Sufjan’s own Christian faith informed his music was so compelling to me. His songs weren’t ever preachy or didactic in the way whatever the contemporary Christian music (CCM) machine churns out but they captured life in its glorious knottiness. His music didn’t exist for the sole purpose of glorifying God but did so better than any ostensibly Christian art by singing about the breadth of human experience. While my own faith never evolved beyond agnosticism, I always thought true Christian witness looked something more like Sufjan and his music than any other popular representation in American culture.
Sufjan’s career has defied expectations at every turn. He’ll release a career-defining and critically acclaimed LP and follow it up with “a mixed-medium artistic exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.” You might have made sourdough bread in 2020 but he made a 49-track, 150-minute ambient LP. For newsletter-space purposes and my own sanity, I don’t cover every experiment and excursion from his catalog here. It would’ve felt odd to rank a Christmas album next to a five-part ambient LP in a free newsletter (you can read Friend of the Substack Ian Cohen’s more exhaustive deep dive here). Instead, I focused only on his more traditional solo albums, which excluded great EPs like All Delighted People, collaborative LPs like 2021’s A Beginner’s Mind, and b-sides compilations like 2006’s The Avalanche. It’s not a perfect system but it works here.
He hasn’t released a bad album and each one is worth your time so please take this very personal ranking as a reflection of just one guy’s tastes. In a 2017 interview with The Creative Independent, Sufjan mentioned that he’s now listening to a lot of the same music he loved as a kid. “So maybe that’s a good thing to suggest, revisit the things you loved as a kid with fresh eyes and ears,” he said. “It’s kind of amazing.” In that spirit, here’s a Discography Deep Dive on Sufjan Stevens.
9. A Sun Came (1999)
Sufjan wrote his debut album in 1998 while attending Hope College, a Christian liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan. The campus is less than an hour from where I grew up and while it’s more progressive than many of the four-year institutions in the area, it’s still a pretty claustrophobic and conservative institution. (They only added gender identity and LGBTQ protections to its non-discrimination policy in 2021). The artists and friends I know who went there found much of their creative success in spite of the university, not because of it. There is a universe where I would’ve stayed closer to home and gone there for college. I don’t know what Sufjan’s experience was like there but A Sun Came is a fascinating document of an artist in blossom. There are too many detours and experiments for this to feel like a cohesively impressive whole but certain songs showcase the genius to come. “Kill” and “Jason” feel like the future blueprint for songwriters like Alex G while others take on a more Drag City-inspired indie rock approach. It’s interesting as an early window but not something I revisit often.
8. Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001)
When you’re just getting into music, your favorite artists act as a gateway to new genres, other lesser-known acts, and totally different musical worlds. I wouldn’t have known about Judee Sill if Fleet Foxes hadn’t covered them in the late aughts and I wouldn’t have had an interest in weird, noisy, and playful electronic music if Sufjan hadn’t followed up his debut with Enjoy Your Rabbit in 2001. I first knew about him because of the quiet, folkier tunes he put out with Seven Swans and the two states albums and I tried to immerse myself in Enjoy Your Rabbit because I loved his other work so much. There are some truly special moments on here like the guitar-based title track acting as a reprieve from the glitchy chaos of the tracklist. While it’s not a favorite, I’m happy I exposed myself to it then. Listening on headphones before bed as a teen opened me up to the fact that artists don’t need to follow your preconceived notions of their art.
7. The Ascension (2020)
Alright, here’s where it gets pretty tricky. You could put any combination of the following six records in any order and I’d think, “That’s a great Sufjan list.” 2020’s The Ascension might be the most sonically impressive LP of his and it’s one that I grow fonder of with each listen. “I want to make a dance record,” he told TCI in 2017. “I haven’t done that and I’m not getting any younger, so I should do it while I still feel like dancing. I was actually working on something but then the election happened, so I was wondering: Can I make an angry dance record?” The Ascension is an angry dance record, one that combines his masterful and vibrant pop-electronic arrangements with his ability to excavate the darkest feelings of loneliness and depression in his lyrics. It’s a gorgeous listen but at 81 minutes it’s a journey that requires some work. It’s one of the few Sufjan albums that I didn’t listen to immediately (fall 2020 was one of the least creative and open-to-music periods of my life) so I don’t have any real nostalgia for it yet. I can see it climbing my rankings in the future though. When LP highlights “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Die Happy” explode, they both stand as two of my favorite moments in Sufjan’s discography ever.
6. Seven Swans (2004)
Seven Swans was the first Sufjan album I ever heard and I’m only kind of embarrassed to admit that it’s because of The O.C. (That FOX teen drama was a gateway for so many folks my age into more interesting music than what was ubiquitous at the time). After “To Be Alone With You” featured in a season two episode in 2004, I eventually downloaded Seven Swans on iTunes. Opener “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” quoted the Bible and kicked off with banjo plucks, which I cannot stress enough was a crazy instrument to hear for a 13-year-old who’s into rock music. It's a gorgeous, sparse record that quotes Flannery O’Connor and grapples with God. Though Sufjan’s faith colors all of his work, this is his most overtly religious full-length. If you just watched The O.C. you’d think “To Be Alone With You” was about Rachel Bilson’s character, not Jesus. Closer “The Transfiguration” is as close to a literal retelling of the story from the Synoptic Gospels as possible. There are times that I think Seven Swans is top-tier Sufjan like the harmonies on “In The Devil’s Territory” or the Palace Music-esque opening electric guitars on “Sister.”
5. The Age of Adz (2010)
When The Age of Adz came out in October 2010, I wasn’t as receptive to it as I could have been. I had been in Chicago for over a year and was hoping Sufjan would return with another entry in his “50 States Project,” which I didn’t know at the time was just a publicist-concocted marketing ploy. At 75 minutes, this record’s electronic arrangements are dense, exuberant, and ultimately pretty brilliant. It is bookended by two songs that stand as Sufjan’s greatest achievements (behind “Chicago”), opener “Futile Devices” and the sprawling, 25-minute suite “Impossible Soul.” There’s a faction of writers and fans I respect that claim this and The Ascension should be viewed as Sufjan’s career best. While I respect the contrarianism, I can’t bring myself to agree. I wonder how his career would have been received if he had just released his electronic albums and not his folk, baroque pop masterpieces from the 2000s. These albums are masterful, but it’s that folkier palette that made him such an influential musical figure this century. His career has always zagged when he’s expected to zig, and The Age of Adz should be viewed as a singular expression of following the muse when he could’ve gone the crowdpleasing route writing about another state.
4. Carrie and Lowell (2015)
I know: it feels deeply fucked to put his 2015 masterpiece Carrie and Lowell fourth. This is an album that inspires such raw, visceral emotions that I nearly get choked up every time I hear the opening guitalin notes on “Death With Dignity.” It’s an album so overwhelmed with grief and unadulterated, autobiographical feeling that it sometimes feels voyeuristic. Written to cope with the 2012 death of his estranged mother, who had battled substance issues and mental illness throughout her life and abandoned Sufjan and his siblings, this album deals directly with the void and his memories with her in the eighties in Oregon. “It's something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother's death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering,” he said in a 2015 Pitchfork interview. “It's not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.” The instrumentation is almost entirely organic and there are no drums, just Sufjan at his rawest and sparsest. It’s a masterpiece but one that feels like a personal exhumation.
3. Michigan (2003)
In a 2006 interview with Pitchfork promoting The Avalanche, Sufjan summed up two of his state-themed LPs better than I ever could. “Illinois is a projection of my enthusiasm and my imagination for a particular place that was a bit unfamiliar to me,” he said. “It's really a fabrication. Michigan is more based on memory, so it's more introverted and melancholy.” This 2003 LP marks Sufjan’s creative and critical breakthrough. To date, it’s his most character-based lyrical endeavor and also given his biographical history with the state, one of his most personal. It’s less theatrical and ambitious as 2005’s Illinois but it’s nearly as potent. At certain points, he settles into Sea and Cake and Tortoise-inspired grooves, and other times he gives drive-by small towns humanity and grace in these songs. Growing up in the state, I felt seen by these songs even though there wasn’t a song about my hometown.
2. Javelin (2023)
This may be recency bias but Javelin, Sufjan’s latest record, feels like a career culmination. It’s not the alienating and divisive electro-pop, it’s not consistently gentle folk music, and it’s not about a state, it’s its own thing: magical, alive, and breathtaking. Each song feels unimpeachable on its own terms and as part of a whole. It’s simultaneously grounded and yearning and ebullient. Upon its release, the LP took on a new resonance when Sufjan publicly came out and dedicated the full-length to his late partner who died this year. With that new context, album cuts “Goodbye Evergreen” and “Shit Talk”—both winding, explosive, and gorgeous epics—hit with even more devastating pathos. But even though there are songs titled “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” this still feels like a hopeful record. The physical release comes with a collection of essays Sufjan wrote dissecting love. It’s gorgeous and searching and messy prose that captures what’s at the heart of Sufjan’s entire musical endeavor: finding, holding onto, and nurturing love. The closing cover of Neil Young’s “There’s a World” is a perfect summation of this career-long project in optimism and open-heartedness.
“I know relationships can be very difficult sometimes, but it’s always worth it to put in the hard work and care for the ones you love, especially the beautiful ones, who are few and far between,” Sufjan wrote to eulogize his late partner on the Javelin release date. “If you happen to find that kind of love, hold it close, hold it tight, savor it, tend to it, and give it everything you’ve got, especially in times of trouble. Be kind, be strong, be patient, be forgiving, be vigorous, be wise, and be yourself. Live every day as if it is your last, with fullness and grace, with reverence and love, with gratitude and joy. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
1. Illinois (2005)
Sometimes the consensus pick is the right one. This is Sufjan’s pinnacle. Front-to-back, it’s pretty undeniable even at 74 minutes. It’s the kind of classic that’s enthralling and mesmerizing and will stand the test of time. From the opening notes of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” the LP already feels like a miracle. Maybe it’s that you had to be 14 when it came out, maybe it’s too cute or the song titles are too long, maybe it evokes too much of the twee 2000s aesthetic, or maybe I don’t care. This album is simply fantastic. Remember that childlike innocence I mentioned at the beginning of this piece? That’s the kind of energy that Illinois inspires you to channel.
There are about a half-dozen alltimers on the tracklist including “Chicago,” which might be one of the greatest songs ever written. For Sufjan growing up, road trips to Chicago meant a brief escape from Michigan to catch a show at Metro or Rivieria. It was for me too. As cliche and cringe as it is, I put this song on as soon as I entered the skyline the day I moved here. It felt like a new beginning then. Thank god, I haven’t gotten cynical and lost that feeling when I hear it now.
What I listened to:
Sufjan Stevens, “Death With Dignity”
“Casimir Pulaski Day”
“Tell Me You Love Me”
“All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!”
“In The Devil’s Territory”
“Blue Bucket of Gold”
“Will Anybody Ever Love Me?”
“Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)”
Gig report: Bob Dylan at Cadillac Palace Theatre (10/6)
Bob Dylan is my favorite artist, and Friday was my first time seeing him live. I’m a little embarrassed that it took me this long to attend one of his shows. Part of it was being spooked when I was younger by folks who claimed that seeing Bob live is disappointing Some of his fans would tell me that from the aughts to the 2010s his live show was lackluster, his voice was shot, the arrangements of fan favorites were unrecognizable, and he didn’t seem like he wanted to be there. Because of my intense relationship with his catalog, I figured as a teen that I’d be fine skipping it. I didn’t want my love for Dylan’s music to waver and I didn’t want to agree with the fans who dismissed an artist who was still touring in his 70s and 80s. Another reason is that for most of my teens and twenties, I simply could not afford tickets.
All that said, I regret waiting this long but I’m so happy his Friday set at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theater was the one I chose. (I had tickets to the 2013 My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Bob Dylan gig at the soccer stadium in Bridgeview, IL but I couldn’t go for reasons I can’t remember). Bob was fantastic that night. The 18-song setlist was totally lively, emotionally stunning, and a blast throughout. He added two covers to bookend the gig with a cover of The Paul Butterfield Blues staple “Born In Chicago” and ended the set with a take on Muddy Waters’ “Forty Days and Forty Nights” but the rest of the songs stuck to the formula he’s had all year: several cuts from his 2020 LP Rough and Rowdy Ways plus a Johnny Mercer cover and a few underappreciated gems peppered in from his unmatched career. It doesn’t matter that Dylan played “When I Paint My Masterpiece” basically every show for two years straight—what mattered to me that night was experiencing it for the first time in person.
Rough and Rowdy Ways has been slowly but surely rising to the top of my personal Dylan rankings since it came out in 2020. It’s a phenomenal, gorgeous, and playful record. It’s astoundingly direct and self-aware lyrically but subtle, plaintive, and pretty in the arrangements. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” stood out as a live highlight while the open-hearted “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”—a top three Dylan love song already—felt like the emotional peak. What struck me the entire time was how clearly Bob was enjoying himself. He was in his element behind the baby grand and even smiled a few times between songs. Every complaint I had ever heard about Dylan performing live felt ridiculous during the 90-minute set. Sitting 11 rows away, I was entirely in awe of this 82-year-old and I kept thinking about what an amazing life he’s led. I won’t miss him again.
Gig report: Villagerrr, Kneafsey at Gman Tavern (10/7)
Villagerrr played their first Chicago show Saturday at Gman Tavern and it was a really special night. The Columbus songwriter Mark Allen Scott brought four backing musicians—two guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer—to flesh out his incredible songs. Even though it’s the project’s first extensive tour, he’s astoundingly prolific (he has several LPs on streaming and Bandcamp plus his solo outlet Cantuckee). There’s an LP on the way and much of the set featured songs from the forthcoming full-length but highlights featured 2022 EP cut “Knots,” and the two already released singles “See” and “Barn Burnerrr.” It felt like everyone who was there came out with a new favorite band. Jimmy from Chicago’s Motel Breakfast, a band I’ve seen open for Good Looks and more, kicked off the gig with his solo acoustic project Kneafsey. Perfect night.
What I watched:
Long Strange Trip (Prime)
Being a fan of the Grateful Dead is something you can’t force. I’ve had phases where I’ll put on American Beauty or Workingman’s Dead but their vast catalog of live LPs, bootlegs, and ephemera has always felt too daunting to tackle. That said, I feel ready now. At some point, a music fan has to decide whether or not they’re the kind of listener who wants to hear a few dozen different versions of “Althea” for the rest of their life. That sounds fine to me so the only non-Sufjan music I listened to this week was by the Grateful Dead. I never finished the massive Dead documentary Long Strange Trip when it came out but I fixed that over the weekend. It’s a wonderful overview of their career, cultural reach, and the embattled lives of Dead members. It’s sadder than you’d expect but ultimately pretty moving.
My good friend Brian A. Anderson is currently writing a book on the Grateful Dead—it’s a comprehensive and critical history of the band’s gargantuan Wall of Sound speaker setup they created in 1973. We worked together at VICE but only became close when he moved to Chicago. The first time I visited his place, I noticed he was in possession of one of these speakers. His purchase of this iconic part of Grateful Dead and live music history kickstarted the idea for the book. It’ll be a while until a draft is ready to read so I figured I’d start My Most Serious Grateful Dead Deep Dive before he finishes it.
What I read:
Don’t play the hits! Rarities are one of the great joys of live music (Laura Snapes, The Guardian)
I’ve argued before that knowing exactly what’s going to happen at a gig isn’t an impediment to enjoying it and can even contribute to the delight of obsessive fans. But having no idea what to expect is an even greater thrill: the notion that you might hear that one weird song that means the world to you, even revitalising a past self; that your favourite band is as alive and alert to the richness of their back catalogue as you are – remember the joys of finally hearing the deep cuts “Kohoutek” and ”Harborcoat” on REM’s Live at the Olympia in unprecedented lyrical clarity. It’s an acknowledgment of how much time, money and effort people spend to get to a gig these days.
The trend also flies counter to an increasingly predictable cultural landscape where IP is harvested to within an inch of its life across multiple mediums, most blockbuster films are brand extensions, remakes or sequels, and the risk-averse publishing industry often seeks to replicate its last big success. Pop is far from immune: there’s a tedious version of fan service where musicians just affirm the demands of entitled followers to avoid risking their wrath, like Swift releasing a version of the Midnights song “Snow on the Beach” with Lana Del Rey’s guest vocals made slightly more prominent. Unpredictable setlists redress the power balance while still pleasing both parties.
The Weekly Chicago Show Calendar:
Thursday, Oct. 12: Civic, Ganser at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 12: Geese, PACKS at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 12: Drugdealer, Immaterial Possession at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 12: Jessy Lanza, Golden Donna at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 13: Circuit Des Yeux, Dorothy Carlos at Constellation. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 13: Lucinda Williams and Her Band at Riviera. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 13: Botch, FACS, Sweet Cobra at Metro. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 13: Esmé Patterson, V.V. Lightbody at Schubas. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 13: Band of Horses, Phosphorescent, Bella White at Salt Shed. Tickets.
Saturday, Oct. 14: Colter Wall at Salt Shed. Tickets.
Saturday, Oct. 14: Model/Actriz, Conjunto Primitivo at Hideout. Sold out.
Saturday, Oct. 14: Nation of Language, Miss Grit at Metro. Tickets.
Sunday, Oct. 15: The Zombies at Old Town School of Folk Music. Sold out.
Sunday, Oct. 15: Waltzer, Josephine, Caleb Ramos, Finom (DJ) at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Sunday and Monday, Oct. 15-16: Little Feat at Vic Theater. Tickets.
Monday, Oct. 16: draag me, Channel Beads at Empty Bottle. Free.
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Ulrika Spacek, Holy Wave, Toosh at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Truth Club at Golden Dagger. Tickets.
Wednesday, Oct. 18: John, Tunic at Schubas. Tickets.
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Jordana, Dev Lemons at SPACE. Sold out.
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