What is a Sufjan Stevens?

I must confess at the outset that I think Sufjan Stevens is a powerful artist and probably my favorite musician.  He is an outsider and yet widely loved and respected.  He maintains distance that has always made him seem fragile to me.  He is like a person who speaks softly, but with a heavy voice.  You stop to hear his perspective.  In addition, this gives me the feeling that Sufjan is my friend.  That if I saw him at a restaurant I could pull up a chair sit down and discuss big ideas as old friends.  This is as anti-rock star an element as I can think of.

Age of Adz does not blow this perception completely out of the water with the first song, “Futile Devices.”  Sufjan is still tender, vulnerable.  But quickly he puts up a layer of electronic resonance that moves to dissonance many times beginning in his second track.  This layer of electronic noise/music has replaced the varied musical instruments that accompany most of Stevens earlier work.  Though the instruments are still there, they do not play a starring role.

This is not to say that there is not tenderness included there within.  In fact, this album is actually more personal by Sufjan’s own admission.  This seems hard to fathom given previous songs like “Casimir Pulaski Day.”  But constructs like his own death rather than another’s verify that assertion.

Various themes appear throughout the album.  Death, illness, desire for closeness and anger are all very real elements.  The anger of course is the most shocking.  I cannot recall Sufjan being angry before—loud yes, angry no.  But there is little way to misinterpret the repeated lyric “I’m not f*@&ing around.”  This is especially jarring coming from an artist who consistently talks about his own faith.  Even in an earlier track advising his audience to “Get real, get right with the Lord.”

But the track that contains the anger, “I Want to Be Well” is the key to the album from a thematic standpoint.  Sufjan has talked publicly about his battles with serious illness while trying to complete this album.  This battle with mortality takes over most if not the entire album.

What does this remind me of?

This album reminds me of two very popular albums that have been compared to each other before—Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead’s OK Computer.

The OK Computer references are obvious to me.  The electronic subtext, the acceptance but conflict about current reality pervades both albums.  There is no evil robot voice in Adz, but I think there may be dialogue that between the tech and the singer.  In the 25 minute opus*, there is a repeating dialogue “Boy, we could do much more together.”  Maybe I am reading too much into this, but given the autotune that happens earlier in the track, I think this is referencing his style as much as his substance.  Either that or Sufjan needs to stop listening so much to Kanye. * Am I using that term right?  Can an opus be 25 minutes when I a normal rock song is 3:30?

Dark Side of AdzWhat started me thinking about Dark Side of the Moon was the voice and piano duet that starts in “Now that I’m Older.”  Throughout many tracks there is a female voice singing a complimentary line to the melody.  Many times this sounds incredibly similar to the screaming/singing on tracks from Dark Side like “Speak to Me” and “Great Gig in the Sky.”  Finally, play the wonderful track “I Walked.”  Substitute change drawers for beeps.  It sounds incredibly similar to “Money”.  I think you can actually sing “Money” over top of the Sufjan.

So in an effort to check my opinion, last night I turned on the black light, sat in my parent’s basement (read: my own living room) and started my old VHS (read: collector’s edition DVD) copy of The Wizard of Oz.  Unfortunately, my experiment went awry when my mom (read: my son) wouldn’t stop nagging me (read: couldn’t find his blanket to sleep with) and got the timing off.  However, I was able to rescue the venture by starting “I Walked” at the same time that “Money” starts, when the house lands in Oz.

I have not watched the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” in a long time.  I remember it really be cool and really unbelievable.  Adz(Pronounced Odds, or maybe OZ) does not line up exactly like the Floyd album does.  There are some weird concurrences.  Including ahhs when Glenda appears, and the munchkins coming out at the end of “I Walked” to join Dorothy and Glenda as they journey on the yellow brick road.  The mayor walks down two steps accompanied by these lyrics: “The silent man comes down, all dressed in radiant colors.  You see it for yourself.”  Yes, Sufjan I do.

The Wicked Witch of the West speaks during the song, “Get Real, Get Right.”  The opening lyrics being, “I know you want it.  I know you really want to get it right.  Have you forsaken, have you mistaken me for someone else.”  She wants the ruby slippers.  She thinks Dorothy is a witch.  Is Sufjan saying that she should repent from her evil ways?

I do not know if you can line up the tracks like you can with Dark Side.  I think you have to use the shorter version of Too Much in order to make it work.  By the way, it includes the lyrics, “If I was a different man” while the camera is on the farm hands who become Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

There are more of these coincidences (maybe instances), but I will stop.  It is a bit of a stretch, but the similarities between the two albums are not.

Pronoucement With all that said, I don’t love Age of Adz the way that I do other albums.  I appreciate that Sufjan has released something amazing.  And it is amazing.  He is pushing himself here to be something different, to grow as an artist.  I am excited about where this goes next.

What about you two?  Did you pick up on any of the same things I did?