October 1, 2010
Sufjan Stevens is a 35-year-old writer/singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist best known for his 2005 orchestral-folk-rock epic "Come On Feel The Illinoise." He combines art-school and Christian-American backgrounds to produce music that is inspiring to diverse audiences, with lyrics that are whimsical and profound at the same time, and lend themselves to both secular and religious interpretation.
On August 20, he released, online, what he calls an "EP" (odd since at 60 minutes it's more than long enough to be considered a full-length album) named "All Delighted People." The first song in the collection, also called "All Delighted People" is 11:38 minutes long, and seems to cause jaw dropping and mental valve bursting in most first-time listeners.
Use the player and listen along as you read Artocratic Editor Greg Dember's reactions to the song:
I wish I could be writing this in real time during my very first listening, because the song is so surprising as it unfolds that it's never quite the same after the first encounter. I have played it for several first-time listeners and each one has become silent and visibly transfixed. This is not to say that the song loses power with additional exposure, it's just that you will hear it with different ears, with a different mind. From the inside rather than the outside. Or maybe the other way around? Anyway, the song opens a cappella [0:01] with Sufjan singing in a voice more agile and up-front in the mix than in previous recordings, and surrounded by a choir that sounds like angels. The combination of this otherworldly setting with the opening lyric, "Tomorrow, you will see it through," suggests something epic is to follow.
As a secular listener, my first time through I was a little afraid that I was about to emotionally commit to a song meant for a specifically Christian audience… but, based on my previous experience with his inclusive, multi-layered meanings, I trusted Sufjan's artistic sensibilities enough to stay with him. What he ends up delivering is a song that builds meaning through cyclical repetition of similar lyrical fragments, yielding varying connotations as they walk through different musical and lyrical contexts. Woven throughout are borrowed phrases from Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence." For listeners who know the Simon and Garfunkel song well, the anticipation of "Sound of Silence" lyrics that haven't been included yet, and their gradual delivery, creates an interpretive tension.
The song is sung from the point of view of an I, most of the time addressing a you, but the face of the you changes with the shifting contexts. There is also a chorus, functioning in the classical Greek sense, and on repeated occasions the singer addresses "All Delighted People." The you seems to start out as a lover: [1:18] "I took you by the sleeve, no other reason than to be your leading man." Immediately, I'm thinking of the Bible's Song of Solomon which, on the surface, is a love poem between a man and a woman, but is commonly interpreted as a metaphor for God's love of humanity (or of the chosen people, or of the church). So, is Sufjan Stevens, the narrator, singing from the point of view of some sort of personification of God the Creator? It FEELS like he is, although the quaver in Sufjan's voice makes this a vulnerable, self-questioning God. And, once this sacred/mundane relationship is introduced, we learn of difficulties: [2:00] a "hurricane" in the night and a "burning basement" and the corruption of "ideas of strength and style."
The narrator, who may be God, asserts [2:33] "I'm not easily confused" although clearly he is possibly confused now. It's actually more like he means "I'm not used to feeling confused." If this is a God-Creator who is slipping into the fragility of chronological time, the angel Chorus brings back the outside-of-time, unattached, sacred perspective, with the refrain, "All delighted people raise their hands," which at different points in the song comes across variously as a statement of fact, a request, a gesture of encouragement, a poll, an exhortation to vote, and sometimes an explanation.
The first instance of "Sounds of Silence" lyrics [3:22] "And the people bowed and prayed" seem to be a a straightforward description of reverent worship. The Simon-and-Garfunkel-savvy listener of course wonders if the more cynical line "to the neon god they made" will follow, but it hasn't yet. It's actually the narrator/God/Creator who retorts, skeptically, "And what difference does it make, the world surrounds us with its hate." At the end of that line, [3:45] the music abruptly jumps up about 18 notches in volume and orchestral craziness, as if to give the narrator, and maybe the songwriter himself, a way to hide from the word "hate." (It actually took me several re-listenings to discern that "hate" was definitely the word he was singing.)
When the sonic storm clears, the narrator returns with more lines from "Sounds Of Silence." In fact, this is the line we've been waiting for, because it's what opens the Simon & Garfunkel song: [3:57] "Hello darkness my old friend." Sufjan adds "it breaks my heart" and warns the you not to be a rascal or a laughing dog, and that he's come to strangle him. I think now you has shifted from representing God's beloved humanity to God's long-time nemesis, Satan.
After a little bit of discussion with Satan, we get more "Sounds Of Silence" lines that we've been anticipating, the complete cynical version: [4:58] "And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made."
But, in a symmetrical reversal, we now hear a different, positive version of the repeated fragment "What difference does it make," with the addition of the hopeful, vulnerable "I love you so much anyway." The Song of Solomon lover/beloved metaphor continues as God embracing his imperfect creation in a symbolic cosmic aquatic sex act, complete with an orgiastic musical swell [5:38] that mirrors the earlier chaotic Hades-hiding crescendo.
Having found his capacity to fully love humanity in spite of our imperfections, the God-narrator (for whom I use male pronouns mainly because the singer is a man) opens up and begins... uh... blubbering?... about his own failures, [7:58] how he tried his best, but the world is a mess, and seeking reassurance that he is still loved. His questioning is not answered directly. Musically, however, the song concludes [11:00] with a spiraling yet coherent symphonic motion that seems to indicate a new, elevated (but tense) completeness has arrived.
On at least one very loud level, this song is Sufjan's attempt to grapple with the paradoxes of existence/creation, coming from an essentially Judeo-Christian worldview but allowing himself the freedom to extend the mythic language in order to explore his own feelings as a human being. However, in spite of the cosmic, elevated musical setting of the piece, I also have to ask whether, on another level, it is a literal love song about a very intense, painful and maybe guilt-ridden human-human romantic relationship. That is just a topic that I am not very used to hearing Sufjan sing about, but at the same time, I'm also not used to hearing this level of overt passion in his voice. Given that several other of the songs on this new "EP" seem much more personal than his previous work, it's very possible. On the other hand, the inclusion of a second version of the title song near the end of the track order leads one to speculate on whether they all go together in some kind of mythic arc relating to the epic religious themes I pick up in the title song.
Finally, I wonder, how should a genre-crossing, scene-spanning artist like Sufjan Stevens fit into the larger cultural context? Sufjan is a Christian, who makes music that is for everybody, but is arguably of special interest to artistically minded Christians. While working on this "exegesis," I nervously picture Christian readers becoming annoyed at my cavalier humanization of God, and, just as much, I fear secular and other non-Christians either dismissing my interpretations or, worse, dismissing the music because of my interpretations. I think my answer to both is: please listen to what the song has to say for itself. Regardless of what the composer may be intending to convey, this is real art that will open up at least some sort of crack in your reality. What we see through that crack belongs to all of us, whoever we are, and whatever language we may use to describe what we see.
Note (1-28-2017): In Artocratic's sister website, What Is Metamodern?, you can read a more general exploration of Sufjan Stevens' work, particularly as it relates to the new episteme people are beginning to call "Metamodernism."