Sufjan Stevens – ‘Romulus’
Sufjan Stevens – ‘All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!’
In my neverending quest to find some sense in this chaotic world, I’ve been listening to Middle Eastern jazz (Ibrahim Maalouf, Youssef Dhafer); Brahams quintets; Susanne Sundfør, a knockout Norwegian; a lot of the new 4-CD solo set by Brad Mehldau; another 4-CD set of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh in exile, 1975; and the very lovely Możdżer Danielsson Fresco trio. And even a little Gene Pitney, just for ballast.
But my ear keeps drifting back to Sufjan Stevens (b. 1975, Detroit), a choirboy from an alternate universe.
When he was born, his parents were following Subud, a spiritual movement founded in the 1920s by Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo in Indonesia. Hence ‘Sufjan’, which is Persian for ‘comes with a sword’. But Subudians are encouraged to follow a regular religion as well, and Sufjan is apparently a devout Middle America Bible-reading Christian. Eclectic? He also plays most of the instruments on his recordings, which range in style from lo-fi confessional to alien electronica. Especially banjo.
The guy is prolific, preposterous, prosaic, persuasive, precious and profound.
An album a year for 15 years now, oodles of collaborations and projects. A hundred styles, a thousand clips. The default is wistful, plainspoken, confessional, straightforward, close-miked, naked, like ‘Chicago’, from the KCRW sessions.
But then there’s ‘Impossible Soul’, a 25-minute electronic rampage. That somehow works.
Or “Songs for Christmas – Singalong in Stereo Hi-Fi”, a 5-EP set of 42 Yuletide ditties. Confession: there are places even I don’t go. (And every time I say that, I spend the next week bingeing on it.)
The best stuff, from what I’ve been able to glean from a couple hundred hours of listening, are the two albums from his projected 50-state project, “Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State” (2003) and “Illinoise” (2005). If you want an idea of just how far afield Sufjan ranges, these albums include songs such as:
- ‘For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti’
- ‘Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)’
- ‘The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish and Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good about Yourself in the Morning, or We Apolog’
- ‘A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze’
- ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!’
His first network TV appearance, ‘Too Much’ on Jimmy Fallon. He’s wearing—you know what? Words fail me. Just watch the thing.
Stevens is a master of the mundane. Take ‘Casmir Pulaski Day’. Casimir was a Polish nobleman who uprose against Russia (rarely a good idea) in 1768, got himself exiled, brought to America by Ben Franklin, founded the country’s cavalry, saved George Washington’s life, got mortally wounded by grapeshot and was maybe buried at sea by privateer Captain Samuel Bulfinch. Except that some bones were exhumed in Savannah, Georgia in 1996 and studied for eight years before being reinterred.
But, of course, that has nothing to do with the song, which talks about an adolescent boy who meets a girl in Bible class. She contracts bone cancer, and the narrator and his friends pray for her—unsuccessfully. But they’re adolescents, and the hormones are pumping. So there’s a kiss, and maybe some necking, and maybe sex, and lots of emotions and drama, and then she dies. Oh, Sufjan tells it so much better:
Goldenrod and the 4H stone/The things I brought you/When I found out you had cancer of the bone./In the morning, through the window shade/When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade/I could see what you were reading/All the glory that the Lord has made/And the complications you could do without/When I kissed you on the mouth…
All the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders and He shook my face/And He takes and He takes and He takes.
Check out ‘All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!’. That’s just damned fine, sophisticated serious music. Period.
Precious and Profound
Born in Detroit, Sufjan was raised by his father and stepmother in Petoskey, 270 miles north on I-75. His mother abandoned the family, split early on for Oregon.
Sufjan’s indie label Asthmatic Kitty was founded by his stepfather, named after the latter’s stray pet, Sara. He moved her (and, I suppose, Sufjan’s mother Carrie) to Lander, Wyoming, where the label is based, and where the thin, dry air alleviated most of the kitty’s symptoms. She (Sara, not Carrie) lived to the ripe old (kitty) age of 15 or 16, passing in December, 2008.
Carrie visited the young Sufjan rarely and painfully, as detailed in our SoTW ‘Romulus’, a searing narrative of a forsaken child. Romulus is a suburb of Detroit, not to be confused with the mythical founder of Rome, who was set adrift on the stormy river Tiber by his evil uncle Amulius. I don’t know how factual the details in the song are, but they sure are convincing and compelling.
Once when our mother called, she had a voice of last year’s cough.
We passed around the phone, sharing a word about Oregon.
When my turn came, I was ashamed.
Once when we moved away, she came to Romulus for a day.
Her Chevrolet broke down. We prayed it’d never be fixed or be found.
We touched her hair, we touched her hair.
When she had her last child. Once when she had some boyfriends, some wild
She moved away quite far. Our grandpa bought us a new VCR.
We watched it all night, but grew up in spite of it.
We saw her once last fall. Our grandpa died in a hospital gown.
She didn’t seem to care – she smoked in her room and colored her hair.
I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her.
In the liner notes to “Michigan”, Sufjan writes: “Our parents do the best they can, under the circumstances. They do what they can, and it is always the very best. Who’s to say if you were not loved or touched. There was too much to do, there were too many children, too many meals to prepare, too many sheets to fold, too many socks to match, too many floors to sweep. Oh the terrible burden, each of us doing the very best we could. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Living their lives, mowing their lawns, hanging their laundry, cleaning their clothes, arguing their arguments. You would do far worse. You would fail completely.”
Sufjan wears wings and dayglo body stickers. But he really is a consummate songwriter, and he understands a lot about acceptance. He’s weird and young and believes in giant alien wasps and stuff. He’s not just from another generation, he’s from another universe. Do you blame me for being befuddled? But he has a largesse of soul and spirit, and I’m paying attention. Seems we have what to learn from these kids, even the winged ones. Maybe especially from the winged ones.