Key Albums: Michigan (2003), Seven Swans (2004), Illinois (2005), The Age of Adz (2010)
Sufjan Stevens is a songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist who harbors a conceptual, thematic approach to making albums. "The music I write is entrenched in traditions of folk music, but it has very grand, romantic aspirations that more closely resemble the music of institutions, of academia," says Stevens. "I love the concept of recording, making albums, as an artform; I’ve always loved the album as format. I find [working with a concept] really liberating."
Stevens' best-known concept is his '50 States project,' in which he set out to author an album for every State in the Union. The ever-ambitious artist appeared earnestly intent on attempting such, but, after stalling on two albums (2003's Michigan and 2005's Illinois), Stevens has distanced himself from it. "The whole premise was such a joke," he told Paste, in 2009, "and I think maybe I took it too seriously."
Stevens was born and raised in the seedy suburbs of Detroit, before his family —a Brady-esque sprawl that included three elder siblings, one elder step-sister, and a younger half-brother— relocated to Petoskey, a small timber town on the edge of Lake Michigan, when Stevens was nine. As a teenager Stevens studied piano and oboe at Interlochen, a private Christian art-school in Northern Michigan, but after a school-mandated mission to rural Jamaica, Stevens determined that he wanted to be a writer.
"I wanted to write books; I loved to tell stories, I loved reading," Stevens would tell me, in 2007. "I loved music, but I loved it in a very non-personal, non-emotional way... I approached [it] with a technical, mechanical, schooled method. It wasn't at all tapping into that creative, emotional side of me."
That only came when Stevens went to university, at small, liberal-arts Hope College in rural Holland, Michigan. With his mother's ex-husband, Lowell Brams (with whom Stevens would later found his own Asthmatic Kitty label), feeding him a diet of Nick Drake and Terry Riley, Stevens picked up the guitar. Though he "was really clumsy and naïve" and fumbled out "pointless and meaningless" songs, Stevens could feel his life shifting tack. "Writing songs really changed everything for me," he said.
Yet, in his first band, Marzuki, Stevens didn't write the songs; deferring to songwriter Shannon Stephens as he played piano, guitar, and recorder. After Marzuki "felt like a failure" upon their break-up, Stevens thought he'd never perform his own songs, and moved to New York "determined to be a writer" and happy to have music, his college "distraction," be but a hobby.
Suitably enough, Stevens' first two albums —2000's collection of beginner's bedroom recordings, A Sun Came, and 2001's instrumental electronic extrapolation of the Chinese Zodiac, Know Your Rabbit— were barely-noticed affairs. Yet, with Stevens' literary ambitious leading only to fruitless networking, he begun to treasure the musical connections he'd made with Christian-revivalist big-band jamboree The Danielson Famile and whimsical one man band Half-Handed Cloud. It was they who helped Stevens on his break-out third album, Michigan.
The first record in what was proposed as a 50-album project, Michigan found an audience not just through its mix of quiet folksongs and busy modernist compositions, but its ambition. "It was meant as a provocative remark, a proclamation," Stevens explained, of the endeavor. "It really wasn't based on reality, it was more about the psyche of beginning this thing."
Stevens' next album was, in terms of the States Project, a side-step: 2004's elegant, poignant, folkie Seven Swans a song-cycle of veritable hymnals steeped in biblical imagery and filled with questions of faith. It proved just as thematically-taught as Know Your Rabbit and Michigan, and served to effectively 'out' Stevens as a Christian Musician.
In subsequent years, Stevens would come to lament entering such a realm. "I don't think music media is the real forum for theological discussions," says Stevens. "I think I've said things and sung about things that probably weren't appropriate for this kind of forum."
In 2005, Stevens would release his second 'state' LP, Illinois; a "celebratory and triumphant" tribute to the Prairie State. A dense, heavily-researched work clocking in at 74 minutes long, it was met with unanimous, exultant acclaim, charted by Metacritic as the best-reviewed record of 2005. Stevens' "monomaniacal" work on the record produced enough material for another record, 2006's The Avalanche, functionally subtitled Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album.
Stevens' capped off an incredibly prolific period with the late-2006 release of Christmas, a five-disc box-set of Christmas songs that found Stevens trying to rescue the season from hyper-capitalist kitsch. It seemed, at the time, that 50 states were in his reach.
A Workaholic's Hiatus
Yet, in 2007, something strange happened: Stevens went quiet. In truth, he was working on The BQE, a commissioned multimedia performance-piece about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The project, Stevens later opined, "derailed the momentum" he had from Illinois. Ever the workaholic, Stevens kept at the grind, but all of a sudden his efforts seemed to be elsewhere; like turning The BQE into a DVD release, or presiding over a chamber-quartet reinterpretation of Know Your Rabbit titled Run Rabbit Run.
Promoting these twin 2009 releases, Stevens gave a confessional interview to Paste that explained his hiatus. "I no longer really have faith in the album anymore. I no longer have faith in the song," Stevens admitted. "I'm wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download?"
A Son Came (Back)
Stevens returned from his pseudo-hiatus in 2010, first with the digital EP, All the Delighted People, which was released instantly, and unexpectedly. Then came his sixth album, The Age of Adz. Showing Stevens had rediscovered his "faith in the song," it was his most pop LP, an album bordering on a Sufjan version of electro-soul. Strangely, neither EP nor LP was a whole, thematic work.
In 2012, Stevens issued his second five-disc seasonal box-set, Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10.