Without a Prayer

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

Flannery O'Connor had chops but she couldn't sing—or play guitar either. Off the bat Sufjan Stevens, Brooklyn-based indie popper and (I swear) the Next Flannery, definitely has that on his idol. August 19 he begins five nights at the Bowery Ballroom; all tickets are gone.

Comparisons are collegiate, but the Michigan-born Stevens shares two obsessions with O'Connor. Both are regional writers who respect the notion of craft—that rules are friends most of the time, that individual works are just steps to perfecting a form.

And both sweat the mechanics of grace, redemption, innocence, and original sin, tropes they embrace not just as religion, but as narrative tools with universal cachet. Writing is work; inspiration's a myth. "I don't view myself as an artist; I view myself as a technician," says Stevens of his newest, fifth, and best album, Illinois. "And I don't think technicians are waiting around for the muse."

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.

Technically proficient, multiplicitous like Bach or Caravaggio, Illinois spreads 22 songs over 74 minutes, 30-plus instruments, and more guest spots than a hip-hop debut. Stevens tells stories built off Illinois lore learned from books and solicited from friends and family who live there. "I asked them what kind of particular thing did you have in your town, in Peoria or Jacksonville, that seems unique to that area, and what makes you call that place home. I just asked for all the details, the vernacular, whatever mythology. I read a lot of police logs . . . " We hear about a UFO sighting near Highland, a prairie fire near Peoria, the predatory wasps of the Mississippi Palisades, a serial killer who dumps his prey under his porch. And when Stevens is on, which is usually, the rest of us feel these stories as swatches of the frail human condition: fleeting happiness in the American Nightmare, a propensity for evil, fear of loss, cultural decay. These are heavy topics, fit for undergraduate philosophy papers and Bright Eyes woe-is-me. But Stevens sets them all to music that aspires to allay those fears, its uplifting spirit providing the momentary escape of chestnuts sung around the campfire—postponing like O'Connor the characters' entry into a world of guilt and sorrow.

That musical-lyrical tension can overwhelm. The mini-symphony "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" begins as a swirling 5/4 Charlie Brown piano jam about the town of Columbia's growth into a full-fledged city, set to worry-free horns and chirping vocal harmonies with bustling multisyllabic rhymes. That's on first listen. By the third, we make sense of the words: "In my infliction/Entrepreneurial conventions/Take us to glory," then "Oh God of Progress/Have you degraded or forgot us?" While the town bustles, Stevens sings already of its rot. But this isn't evangelism, and that's important: Stevens merely observes Illinois's misplaced hopes and ambitions and sees them to their natural conclusions.

Not even faith or prayer exists outside what Stevens calls his "cynicism." In "Casimir Pulaski Day," one of the more stripped-down tracks—just Stevens plus an acoustic guitar and a female voice—the narrator wades through grief, embarrassment, and difficult nostalgia over a friend's bone cancer. "Tuesday night at the Bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens."

Something else seems gloriously conflicted about these songs. You might say Stevens finds the general in the particular, but in the process he subjugates his subject matter, robs it of its unique character. Especially on songs like "Chicago," Stevens has no interest in capturing the essence of a city he treats as an escapist rest stop on the way to New York City. "It was for freedom," goes the song, "from myself and from the land." When the trumpet takes over the vocal melody, the song plays like the teenage epiphany it recounts. Is it young Sufjan's?

"Several trips I would take to Chicago when I was in college were really eye-opening for me. There was one trip in particular that I did with some friends. It was very self- conscious and very premeditated. But we decided to take like $20 or something, a really small amount of money. We had to survive for a couple days on our own, with our own intuition and our own instinct. We pretended like we were homeless kids, and we did really stupid things."

Forgive Stevens his culture vulturing. His Midwest is non-cynical, non-stereotypical, and eminently more reverent than most people's, and my guess is that the residents of Jacksonville are happy to have a song named after their town, whatever its arc. But grant Stevens his deep anxieties about what I just did above: dig for personal politics and eureka moments that inform the music at the expense of engaging the song as an autonomous entity. And that's particularly dangerous for songwriters like Stevens (or fiction writers like the deeply Catholic O'Connor) who happen to be devout Christians, because inevitably the Christian worldview informs their compositions. "It's the most important thing in my life. It's unavoidable."

After Stevens's sparse, explicitly biblical Seven Swans, critical discussion turned from songcraft to debates about Stevens's religion and the propriety of singing about one's beliefs. "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. And I just feel like it's not my work or my place to be making claims and statements, because I often think it's misunderstood."

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.

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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