Sufjan Stevens sings about strange stuff.
Here is a brief description offered by his own music page (http://music.sufjan.com/): "Sufjan Stevens mixes autobiography, religious fantasy, and regional history to create folk songs of grand proportions."
That about sums it up, except, when you actually listen to his songs, you begin to realize the autobiographical, historical, religious, and (I would add) mythical allusions in his songs are so enmeshed within each other and occur within multiple layers of meaning at any given time it is often difficult to figure out what or when or who exactly he is singing about. This potential confusion is why people have found his intentionally autobiographical album Carrie & Lowell so refreshing. "It is so straightforward," we say. "It is Sufjan laying his heart bare," we say. Yes...and maybe no. I would argue, that while this is certainly Sufjan's most concise, lucid, and "straightforward" album, he still defers constantly to outside material throughout the album as a means of interpreting his own grief. It would seem that in order for an album about the death of his mother to have universal appeal Sufjan needed to include numerous Biblical, mythical, religious, historical, animal, geographical, geological, botanical, and culinary allusions. And thus I believe the only way Sufjan can truly tell us about himself is to turn himself into a metaphor.
The moment of clarity about Sufjan came deep into my listening sessions of the Illinois album, so somewhere around 2005-2006. He had said in numerous interviews that somewhere in the research phase for the album he had gotten bored with all the civic historical and geographical referencing and so had decided to make the album about himself. I did not believe him, of course. Just look at the track listing. We have all the towns from my home state Illinois, we have a song about the most superfluous idiosyncratic Illinoian holiday, we have Lincoln and Frank Lloyd Wright and The Blackhawk War and John Wayne Gacy Jr. and the Seer's Tower. And yet, Sufjan has imbedded himself into nearly every song.
What exactly does "Casimir Pulaski Day," "Chicago," or "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us," have to do with Illinois at all other than the inclusion of surface references? And in other songs Sufjan seems to show up at the oddest times and places. For instance, is "Decatur" a fictional short story or has he embedded a part of his own life about his stepmother where landmarks in the Central Illinois town serve only as mood setting wallpaper? To go on, how in the world does Sufjan turn the 1893 World's Fair into being about his own artistic and commercial crisis or the tragedy of a serial killer into being about his own sinful nature or the Seers tower into being about his own mother and father or the laundry list of Illinois towns and people in "They Are Night Zombies!!" into being about his own fears of being a forgotten artist buried under the rubble of history and people still think the album is about the 21st state in the Union?
Actually, Illinoise is about Illinois, but it is just as much about Sufjan too. And that is my whole point. Almost nothing is straightforward with Sufjan. He embeds himself into Biblical narrative and prophetic visions on Seven Swans and All Delighted People (and a Simon & Garfunkel song as well, I might add). He becomes visionary, reclusive artist Royal Roberts of Age of Adz. Don't even get me started on how he embeds himself into Christmas on his two Xmas projects. I am only beginning to unpack what he is attempting to do on those works. In the works of Sufjan Stevens everything is and is not about Sufjan. Parsing through all the autobiography, fiction, history, and literary references really is not the point. The point is to take the work as a whole and interpret all the references in the crazily enmeshed way Sufjan put it together for us.
Still, I thought it would be helpful to be able to visualize what Sufjan does with the narratives of his songs, and so I have provided the "Sufjan Narrative Spectrum" chart, which you can find at the top of this article. Please use it as a handy guide to navigate through the works of Sufjan Stevens.
I see Sufjan's songs as occurring within a spectrum, from historical/autobiographical songs all the way to purely fictional songs. What makes him so potentially confusing as an artist is you never quite know which place on the spectrum his "narrator" in a given song is singing from. As a comparison, Arcade Fire's songs (another band I write about quite frequently) are almost always fiction or some kind of parable or a kind of abstract poetry. The actual members of Arcade Fire are hardly ever characters in their songs (the song "Haiti" from Funeral is one glaring exception), and you can almost always bet one of their songs is using a fictional narrative to make a greater point about the state of our culture. Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens are equally fixated on creating their own universes through their music. Sufjan, however, has decided to place himself at the center of his imagined worlds and in so doing bends reality to match his own consciousness.
Let me try to describe the Sufjan Narrative Spectrum a bit—though the image is enough of a guide in itself. Please note the albums and songs on the list are not a comprehensive but are only meant to offer a representation of certain types of Sufjan songs.
Purely Historical/Autobiographical Narrative: Sufjan has a number of songs that appear to be purely historical or autobiographical accounts. Believe it or not, I do not think any of the songs off Carrie & Lowell truly fall into this category. We could of course have a long debate about it if you want to, but if you look carefully all of the songs on the album contain a reference of some kind, an allusion to something else, or a metaphorization of his life. The entire album is certainly autobiographical but his story is melded with other symbols. There is not a truly pure "realistic" narrative on the album. The songs that come closest to this category are "All of Me Wants All of You" and "Eugene". There are, however, pure historical/autobiographical songs to be found on Illinois, The Avalanche, Age of Adz, and other albums.
Autobiographical Narrative With Allusions to Works of Literature, Mythology, and History: I will not go into much detail on this category, but this is an everpresent device used on Carrie & Lowell. Nearly every song contains a reference from the list I gave above (Biblical, mythical, religious, historical, animal, geographical, geological, botanical, and culinary allusions). But Sufjan does this on all of his albums, and in so doing he links himself to the greatest works of poetry and literature. To be one of the greats you have to reference or pay homage to the already established greats.
Autobiographical Narrative Abstracted From Reality: There are a number of Sufjan songs that lack a discernible narrative. The songs are certainly about Sufjan, but they are more about his inner consciousness or about an abstract impression of his life. "Death With Dignity" could fall into this category but also songs from All Delighted People, Seven Swans, and Age of Adz.
Autobiographical Narrative Invaded By Works of Literature, Mythology, and History: There are times when a song is most certainly about Sufjan but then that song is invaded by something outside of the song's reality, thus making the narrative a kind of pastiche. The most obvious example of this comes in the Carl Sandburg section of "Come On And Feel the Illinoise!", but it also seems to happen on the Christmas albums, and maybe even on Carrie & Lowell when Sufjan's mother returns from the dead to speak to him.
Narratives From Other Times and Places Within Which Autobiography is Superimposed: Sometimes a Sufjan song most definitely occurs in a time and place where Sufjan could never have been and yet there he is, a kid growing up in Illinois or a crazy artist/preacher trying to keep his wife faithful.
Purely Fictional Narrative: Finally, there appear to be Sufjan songs that are entirely fictional, that is, songs where Sufjan does not seem to show up at all and are about fictional people. Most certainly a number of the songs off Michigan fall into this category, as a lot of them were taken from a short story project Sufjan was working on. There also seem to be fictional songs on The Avalanche and even Seven Swans.
Next Article: Putting Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell in Order: A Chronological Tracklisting
An Amazing List of Unreleased Sufjan Stevens Songs
Carrie & Lowell is a Minor Sufjan Stevens Album (and that's a good thing)
Unanswerable Questions 3b: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell
What the New Sufjan Album is Teaching Me
Remainder: I Still Hate Sufjan Stevens