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Sufjan Stevens at Great American Music Hall
by Jeremy Sampson on Sep 13, 2004
Sufjan Stevens will never be accused of thinking small scale. For starters, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter plans to release 50 solo albums, each dedicated to a different U.S. state. This audacious undertaking began in 2003 with Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, an homage to Stevens' birthplace. Replete with tunes like "Say Yes! To Michigan!", "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" and "Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)", Stevens (whose first name is pronounced Soof-yan) paints his musical vision of the Great Lakes State as a place of distinct beauty - with its fair share of sadness.
The Michigan album alone was a mighty grand project. Stevens produced the record on his own and plays more than 20 instruments throughout, including guitar, oboe, organ, xylophone, glockenspiel, banjo, percussion, wood flute and sleigh bells. He is also credited on the album with "rhetoric", the finely-tuned instrument of the songwriter, which he orchestrates to poetic perfection. The result is an astonishing, opus of thoughtful and beautiful music ideal for those times you feel like diving into the most emotional nooks of your CD collection.
In today's world of a million genres, Stevens' sound is variably described as progressive folk, indie folk, indie pop, sadcore, lo-fi, enter-your-own-category-here. The name that always seems to come up as a reference point is Elliott Smith, a fair comparison in many respects. The two songwriters share a propensity for introspection and an ear for the melancholy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stevens' songs tend to be epic in scope, reaching nine or 10 minutes and building toward a crescendo of sound. Stevens successfully alternates the sparse pluck-a-banjo-on-Americana's-porch feel of an Iron and Wine record with a regular polyphonic spree, if you will, of instrumentation at maximum capacity.
Thematically, Stevens takes a deeply honest look at life's sorrows and carves out a relatively stark landscape. But his music is not without uplifting elements, most of which are derived from his own profoundly Christian convictions. The joy that results is definitely that of faith in God, though it manages not to alienate even your most jaded agnostic by steeping itself in spirituality without turning preachy.
Greetings from Michigan was welcomed voraciously by indie critics, perhaps seeking a torchbearer after Smith's untimely death. Pitchfork named it the No. 3 release of '03 and Stevens found himself receiving the most attention of his career (he went solo in 1999 after disbanding his previous band Marzuki). 2004 has seen him release a side project called Seven Swans, which was recorded at the same time as Greetings and sticks mainly to acoustic religious love songs, as well as a re-issue of his debut album, A Sun Came, just last week. This tour is his first to reach the West Coast, and his shows are known for being entertaining and unpredictable (his band sometimes wears weird costumes, for example).
It remains to be seen whether Stevens actually intends to carry out his master plan. Perhaps we should just dismiss it as a whim, though he claims to be working on Illinois, Rhode Island and Oregon simultaneously. Stick around either way - the man has the talent to make North Dakota a fascinating listen.
With Joanna Newsom, Half-Handed Cloud and Denison Witmer
by Jeremy Sampson on Sep 13, 2004