Without a Prayer

Like other religious artists before him, Sufjan Stevens puts his faith in craft

So Stevens apparently believes the "Christian artist" stamp is a deal breaker. Likewise his publicist, who reminded me that "Sufjan has asked that the topic of religion not be discussed in interviews from this point on." (Hmm. Does Kanye West feel the same?) But beyond railing at his own reception, Stevens, a trained oboist, also bemoans the decline of popular music and struggles to mediate the gap he sees between high art and folk.

"Rock and roll is kind of like a progression of folk music, music of the people. It's very primitive and rebellious in nature, and that's what's exciting about it—it's music based on instinct. But then I'm also like torn between that and the prestige and performance and sophistication of high art, classical music, of composition and arrangements for string quartets and woodwind quartet. And I find that I'm always trying to reconcile the two together, and I'm always disappointed when I see pop music, independent bands, and I'm disappointed when I don't experience the level of sophistication that is inherent in classical music."

If you say so. Clearly, Stevens over-simplifies the divide between classical and pop, hesitant to reject European compositional values. But he warned us problems might emerge if we pulled back his veil, so enough. Illinois's tongue is far more silvery anyway.

Stevens bemoans the decline of popular music and struggles to mediate the gap he sees between high art and folk.
photo: Denny Renshaw
Stevens bemoans the decline of popular music and struggles to mediate the gap he sees between high art and folk.

What Stevens struggled for hours to articulate in person, "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." says lucidly in under three minutes. Stevens recounts the serial killer's preparations: "He dressed up like a clown for them/With his face painted white and red/ And on his best behavior/In a dark room, on the bed, he kissed them all." The song is mostly sung as a male-female duet, buoying the gruesome subject matter. But Stevens is on his own for the last stanza: "And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid."

Seconds after delivering these last words, Stevens sighs deeply in relief—or exhaustion, or embarrassment, who can know for sure. It's no real pleasure in life.

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