As a performing musician, I try to cover artists that I truly love. John Prine, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Doc Watson, and Ryan Adams are just a handful of the influential songwriters who I’ve attempted to pay tribute to during my sets. But of all my influences, I would consider Sufjan Stevens to be the most talented artist.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on Sufjan, but it’s apparent to me that his creativity knows few bounds. He has recorded over 100 Christmas songs, an electronic album inspired by the Chinese zodiac, two different “state-themed” albums about Michigan and Illinois, 18th century hymns, and a classical collaboration written entirely about the solar system. His most acclaimed work, and his best in my opinion, is a highly personal and painful record about his mother and stepfather, Carrie and Lowell. Wikipedia lists his genre as “indie folk/alternative rock/baroque pop/electronica”, and he plays everything from banjo to glockenspiel. He’s a classically trained oboist. He’s got range, in other words.
My first extended exposure to Sufjan was this record. The dignity and grace that Sufjan gives to the people of struggling places like Flint by telling their story is striking. I was in after the very first song.
Sufjan is in rare company as a musician; he came out of the gate making some of his best music. Michigan is 15 years old now, and Sufjan was writing these songs at my age, just 26 or 27 years old. His writing has gotten more refined and complex with the years, but the depth was always there. Age and experience have simply given him the ability to concentrate the emotional impact into an absolute gut punch, as with the the opening track on Carrie and Lowell.
Listen to that song, and you’ll know why I’ve yet to cover Sufjan. It would be incredibly difficult. Death With Dignity is so personal; his pain and loss is on display, for all of us to partake in. I downloaded the album to my iPhone, and listened to it on repeat when I flew to Germany last year. It’s a terrific soundtrack for travelling alone.
Despite his excellence, and despite an avalanche of critical acclaim and awards, popularity is not something that has really befallen Sufjan Stevens. Despite being on nearly every year-end “Best Albums” list, Carrie and Lowell only sold about 100,000 copies. (It was self-released on Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty.) Perhaps he isn’t popular because he doesn’t care about popularity; by my estimation, Sufjan hasn’t made many artistic or business decisions based on anything other than doing what he wants to do.
While on a plane to Australia this winter, I watched Call Me By Your Name, the Oscar-winning film that Sufjan provided the majority of the soundtrack for. He was nominated for an Oscar himself, for a beautiful song called Mystery of Love. He performed an abbreviated version of the tune during the awards ceremony with a backing band comprised of other immeasurably talented and-not-at-all-famous artists, like Chris Thile and St. Vincent.
As you can see, he wore a purple jacket with dragons on it. And by the way, he didn’t win the Oscar. I’m guessing he didn’t care. Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes, they wear wings.