Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yes, Even Unto the Ends of the Earth and Autotune, Sufjan Stevens

"The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics." ~ GH Hardy

I was introduced to the songs of Sufjan Stevens as prelude music to Wednesday night "small group" Bible studies when I first moved to New York in 2004. In a Brooklyn apartment that felt oddly like an old farm house, while plain popcorn shook on the stove and assorted teas steeped in mismatched mugs, I'd tell this rather understated crowd how my prior week was (something very much akin to The Devil Wears Prada with more dish-washing and less swag, by the way), as we played squirrel with Sophie-the-dog and waited for the others to get started. All the while, the musical sounds of (it must have been) Seven Swans shushed us from the host's boom box. Once, in exchange for some quality time, Sophie-the-dog made me a mix CD that began and ended with bird calls, and included four yet-unreleased Sufjan tracks: Opie's Funeral Song, What Goes On, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and Rake. I shall love them forever.

At that point, if you'd asked me about the music of this songwriter friend of theirs, I'd have said "it's quiet."

Monday night, at Sufjan's Beacon Theatre NYC homecoming concert with Alaska and our friends, Lemon Peele, Professor Lime, Daisy, and Jasper, I'd have said it's anything but. It was a balloon├Ęd pop dance party, an autotun├Ęd Martian landing of the numerological kind, a schizophrenic-prophetic journey into prog rock's epic Weird. And yet, it was unmistakably 100% Sufjan.

How is that? At Manhattan Diner, after the the show, Lemon Peele made the comparison: "It's not like when Jewel all of the sudden tried to be Gwen Stefani. He's still himself."

True. If I scoot back through the discs, there have always been dance (folk), mixed meters, electronic effects, programmatic story-telling, the observations and reflections of a spiritually-minded researcher, and something inexplicably off-kilter. With his two latest discs, he just takes it all waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy off on a diagonal.

When I listen to Seven Swans, Illinois, or Michigan, I feel like I'm at home. Like Sufjan has somehow tapped into my core desires and made me a nice universe to revel in. In the words of Lemon Peele Liz Lemon, when I hear those albums, "I want to go to there."

Is it nostalgia? Does my heart leap every single time I hear Chicago because I remember that amazing night at BAM with Jenny Bilfield when we sipped cosmos and munched popcorn at Robert Redford's advance screening of Little Miss Sunshine, having no idea what to expect but crying with laughter at the surprise ending? Is it because Sufjan's music feels like my first few years in New York City, those small group meetings of real people talking about real things? Or does it go back to what Mark Baxter (vocal coach) said in my first lesson? We're all looking for music that makes us feel like we are not alone in our hopes, fears, and dreams.  

Maybe it's all of the above. But whatever it is, it has won my loyalty. Yes, even unto the ends of the Earth and Autotune will I follow Sufjan Stevens. And, to be honest, I too hate chemistry but love physics and algebra. (I screamed a little bit during his math monologue.) So there.

"I was in love with the place in my mind, in my mind / I made a lot of mistakes in my mind, in my mind."

More anon.

1 comment:

  1. Because of your post I will give another shot to his last album and get high on Skittles while listening to it :)