Tracing Sufjan Stevens's Intricate Ties to the Music of New York City
In some ways, Sufjan Stevens typifies the public caricature of a musician from Brooklyn: weird, borderline-unpronounceable name; pretty-boy good looks; a level of fame and success in the indie world that borders on Beatlemania while remaining relatively unknown to mainstream audiences. On the other hand, he thwarts the stereotype at every opportunity. He made his name on two decisively uncool, epically twee masterpieces about the history of Michigan and Illinois. His music is unapologetically spiritual, anchored in a Christian ethos highly unfashionable to indie rock's anti-establishment leanings. He's more likely to show up to a show wearing a Tron outfit or giant angel wings than a leather jacket and Ray-Bans.
Whatever the case, Stevens is one of New York's most prominent musical ambassadors (apologies to Taylor Swift) in the indie world and beyond, and his music's relationship with the city is at once elusive and evocative. Unlike our rock icons, from Lou Reed to the Strokes down to recent fixtures like the National, Stevens doesn't typically address New York in his music, with some notable exceptions. To understand the role the city plays in his compositions, we have to dig a little deeper.
Stevens's Carrie & Lowell, out March 31 through Asthmatic Kitty, will spur a thousand reviews marking it as his return to his "folk roots." And fair enough: The album is a spare, delicately beautiful affair, especially restrained when considering its maximalist, Technicolor electronica predecessor, The Age of Adz. Though the label belies the avant-garde streak that has always made his music more unpredictable than many of his soundalike peers (Iron & Wine or Andrew Bird, for example), much of the discourse surrounding Stevens frames him as a folk musician. The guitar-voice foundation of Seven Swans (2004) and Carrie & Lowell, as well as many of the original compositions and the interpretations of classic Christmas songs on his holiday albums, Songs for Christmas (2006) and Silver & Gold (2012), fit most comfortably in the folk tradition. Here, it's easiest to see the connection between the Sixties folk revival — in New York, centered in what's become a mythic Greenwich Village — and Stevens's sensibilities.
Born in Detroit in 1975, Stevens moved to New York in 2000 to attend the New School's creative-writing program. He'd already released his debut, A Sun Came (2000), on Asthmatic Kitty, the record label he co-founded with his stepfather, Lowell, that same year, though his most classically "folk" material would come after his relocation. A caveat: Though playing "spot the influence" is great fun for critics and fans alike, it's impossible to say definitively — unless the artist in question has explicitly stated as such in interviews — whether a particular song or band actively influenced a later songwriter. Still, with Stevens's well-documented epicurean listening habits, it's safe to assume that by the time of his move to New York, he'd listened to, oh, Bob Dylan. While the Dylan of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and its picked template emphasize his free-verse lyricism, there is a clear predecessor to Stevens's own poetic, loosely narrative folk songs. It's in the music of Dylan's hero, Woody Guthrie, that Stevens's most prominent ties to the Village's Sixties scene show themselves.
Guthrie lived in New York in the early Forties, returning in 1954 and remaining until his death in 1967. Dylan famously visited Guthrie while he was hospitalized after showing symptoms of Huntington's disease, and was instrumental in popularizing Guthrie's music among the growing cadre of folk musicians in the Village and elsewhere. Guthrie, like Stevens, found immense inspiration in the folk history of the United States and often used his songs as conduits through which to tell — and to shape — stories of populist history. A song like Guthrie's "The Sinking of the Reuben James" takes the now-obscure story of the first U.S. ship sunk by German U-boats in World War II and transforms it into a heartbreaking tale of death, on a human level and with a devastating chorus ("Did you have a friend on that good Reuben James?/Tell me, what were their names?"). It also provides a clear-cut path to Stevens's own transformation of historical footnotes into poignant, palpable human stories on his "Fifty States Project" albums, Sufjan Stevens Presents...Greetings From Michigan, the Great Lakes State (or Michigan, 2003) and his most popular record, Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come On, Feel the Illinoise (or Illinois, 2005). Numerous Guthrie songs, from "The Great Dust Storm" to "1913 Massacre" to "The Song of the Grand Coulee Dam," trod this ground before Stevens did. And Guthrie's explorations of Christianity — "Jesus Christ," "They Laid Jesus Christ in His Grave" — and fixation on America as an endless fount of earnest promise worthy of this material, which could be viewed as populist, secular hymns ("This Land Is Your Land"), prefigure Stevens's own redemptive, awestruck vision of America, rooted in Christian notions of equality and hope for the future in spite of the pains of the past.
Touches of more obscure figures (today, anyway) of the Sixties Village folk scene show themselves in his music, as well. Stevens's songs have none of the blues in them that heavily influenced the Sixties folk revival — his voice, for one, is too classically beautiful to suggest the grit of a figure like Lead Belly, idolized by many of the artists in New York's scene at the time. But listening to a track like Odetta's "900 Miles," from the adored Odetta Sings Folk Songs (1963), or the songs of Reverend Gary Davis ("Samson and Delilah"), whom the Sixties revivalists lionized, it's easy to hear a deep yearning — for home, for belonging — present in much of Stevens's music. Carrie & Lowell, about the death of his mother and stepfather, fixates on a sense of displacement, of a lost home, a feeling central to the blues that influenced Dylan and other folk musicians. Throughout his discography, songs like "Chicago" and "To Be Alone With You" sound like ballads of the expatriate, written by someone with a deep-seated restlessness and desire to find stillness and belonging, though they may not exist to be found. In that way, Stevens fits right in with the musicians, from Guthrie and Dylan to Odetta and Davis, who came to New York to find a sense of musical kinship.
Stevens's musical lineage in New York splits from its storied folk legacy to take root in the works of another legendary pair of the city's musicians: the iconoclastic composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Reich, a New York native, and Glass, who moved to the city in the late Sixties, are the central figures — along with Terry Riley and La Monte Young — in the minimal music movement of the mid-to-late Sixties. It's difficult to overstate the explosive effects that Reich's and Glass's works have had on contemporary music, as their experimentation opened the door to an immensely exciting, vibrant strain of thoroughly modern music. Minimal music's focus on repetition and melodic patterns, consonant harmonies, and a slow, drawn-out process of chord changes — among many other techniques — is a sort of anti-pop in structure and form. Yet Stevens's most successful and pop-oriented album, Illinois, is especially and deeply indebted to Reich and Glass.
For instance, listening to Illinois's final track, "Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt From My Sandals as I Run," one can hear clear echoes of Reich's masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians, which premiered live in 1976 at New York's Town Hall. In Reich's piece, an ensemble plays through eleven chords in the opening section, the length of each determined by the natural limits of the players' breath; afterward, Reich isolates specific instruments as they play compositions based on those initial chords, slowly adding notes to create a rhythmic, melodically interlocking piece of subtle changes and immense, unfolding beauty. The composition plays out for over an hour. Stevens's "Out of Egypt..." pays homage to Music for 18 Musicians in just over four minutes, as he folds reiterative melodies played by a variety of instruments over a droning foundation. But touches of Reich's methods of repetition and layering show up all over the album, including in its poppier material, from the sticky, looping chords of "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" to their subtle variation that forms the foundation of the later track "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders." Stevens has mentioned Music for 18 Musicians before, and his attachment to the piece, its composer, and its general place in musical history further root him in a New York musical tradition. He'd develop his own response to Reich more thoroughly in his most explicitly New York–influenced work, The BQE.
The BQE and a Brooklyn Community
In 2007, the Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned an as-yet-undeveloped work from Stevens to premiere as part of a festival devoted to the borough's history and artistic achievements. Likely expecting a clever, lyrically driven work akin to Michigan or Illinois, BAM instead received The BQE: a wordless orchestral suite accompanied by Stevens's self-shot Super-8 footage of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, projected on a screen and augmented by five dancers Hula-Hooping onstage while the musicians played the score. In interviews, Stevens suggested the piece dealt with themes of masculine ambition (represented by the BQE's designer, Robert Moses) and "the psychology of man" in the face of monumentally dehumanizing feats of engineering.
Thematic interpretations aside, the BQE project represented a major moment in Sufjan's career, specifically reflected in his ties to New York. By commissioning the work and hosting its debut performances, BAM effectively canonized Stevens as a Very Important Brooklyn Artist, someone who represents the borough's artistic vibrancy and transcends the trappings of a mere indie-rock artist or pop musician. In that way, the New York arts community pushed Stevens closer to the status of a musician like Dylan or Reich, suggesting him as an artist with something more to say, something of a higher, finer artistic merit.
The musical composition itself, as one could guess from listening to Stevens's past work, again references Reich and Glass — rather heavily, in its midsection's rhythmic woodwind patterns. The BQE also suggests Brooklyn's George Gershwin, a composer of a restless, boundary-smashing spirit that must appeal to Stevens's own ambitious character. In weaving these composers into The BQE, Stevens allows New York's musical history to permeate into a decidedly modern mixed-media piece all his own, a wonderful confluence of the city's past and present.
The late Aughts also saw Stevens as an accompanist to some of New York's most notable contemporary bands. He collaborated with Brooklyn indie titans the National on their albums Boxer (2007), High Violet (2010), and Trouble Will Find Me (2013), adding his orchestral flair to the band's brooding compositions. In 2013, he returned to BAM to premiere a song cycle, written with the National's Bryce Dessner and Manhattan-based composer Nico Muhly, called "Planetarium," with a song for each planet in the solar system. 2014 saw Sisyphus, Stevens's second collaboration with NYC's Son Lux, an acclaimed post-rock artist and soundtrack composer, and Chicago rapper Serengeti, a follow-up to the group's 2012 release, Beak & Claw. And most recently, Stevens returned to BAM to present Round-Up, his ode to the American rodeo, which featured Stevens both as conductor and player as he guided Queens' percussion/piano outfit Yarn/Wire through the performance of the short film's live score.
In these works, Stevens affirms his place as a fixture of New York's — and specifically Brooklyn's — musical community, further rooting himself through collaboration in the city's contemporary history. Carrie & Lowell is an intensely personal, introspective work, but Stevens's place in New York City's musical tradition is anything but insular. We'll likely never get another Fifty States record, but his entire body of work is, in its own way, a testament to New York.
Sufjan Stevens's Carrie & Lowell will be released via Asthmatic Kitty Records on March 31.
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