August 1st, 2005

Seduced By Sufjan Stevens (Playing Tomorrow Night at Plush in Tucson)

I've been struggling the last two weeks with the new Sufjan Stevens album Illinois. Kim called me from Lou's Records during her trip to tell me that she'd found me a cool compilation. I debated whether to say, "Thanks," and move on -- there were plenty of other things for us to talk around -- but decided that my desire to make a statement was not as strong as my desire to pick up the Stevens album with its original, Superman-festooned cover art.

When she came home the next day, though, I reacted ambivalently to the sight of the CD. Predictably, I couldn't extricate Illinois from everything else that was going in my life. After dropping her off at work the next morning, I put in on in the car, but couldn't concentrate. Even though I recognized its craftsmanship, something about it annoyed me. It seemed too neat-and-tidy, too abstract, too arranged. But people I respect kept telling me that I should be patient, that it would all start to make sense if I listened long and hard enough.

So I kept trying. One day I played it in the car while driving Skylar home and she was excited to hear a reference to Abraham Lincoln. Then I started to get a feel for the opening track's muted beauty. And then one day, scanning through the songs on another errand-running drive about town, I stopped at track 10, "Casimir Pulaski Day," Up until that point, I'd been paying most of my attention to the more layered, symphonic songs. But the spareness of "Casimir Pulaski Day" -- you can listen to it here -- gave Stevens's powerful lyrics greater impact:
Goldenrod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
when I found out you had cancer of the bone
Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy Yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning, through the window shade
when the light pressed up
against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading
All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth
As good as these words look on the page, they sound a million times better in Stevens's luminous tenor. All of a sudden, I was hooked.

Still, I wasn't ready to commit fully to the album as a whole. The more I played it though, the more it became the record I wanted to play most. Saturday night I met three former graduate students of mine -- DR, AW, and JW -- at Plush for drinks. As we said our goodbyes outside later, the topic turned to music. JW explained that he had just seen Sufjan Stevens in concert in Denver and that it was an incredible show, with one of the most intense encores he'd ever witnessed. I decided then that I was definitely going to see tomorrow's show at Plush. I thought the highly produced sound of the record might not translate to a live setting, but JW assured me otherwise.

"The thing is, I recognize how good Illinois is," I told JW, "but I've been in a radically different space of late. I want Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones. I want to be obliterated in a sea of bourbon and bitterness. I don't want precise pop that keeps its shirt tucked in." JW knew what I meant. "If you're looking for Sticky Fingers, Stevens is not going to cut it. But it's too awesome to ignore." In making my declaration, though, I'd already purged my ambivalence. I knew that my misgivings, which were largely the product of where I'm at in my life right now, had been reduced to ash. Even Stevens's Christianity -- he has suggested that Flannery O'Connor is a role model for his approach to spirituality -- stopped being an issue for me.

Yesterday, I played the record in the morning as we puttered about the house. Skylar came over to dance with me during the "Decatur" song that mentions Lincoln and stayed in my arms until "Casimir Pulaski Day" had ended. "He says, 'He took my shoulders,' dad, so I'm taking your shoulders to match the song." Kim walked in the room later to give her own thumbs-up.

Today I read Stevens's cleverly crafted biography -- probably an autobiography -- and thought about what an impressive achievement the album is. Tonight, as the three of us sat on the family-room floor making Lego creations, we enjoyed Illinois even more. "I know why you like this music," Skylar commented, "It's relaxing." And it is. But it also might break your heart when you're least expecting it. For those of you who live in Tucson, I vigorously recommend joining me and tommix at Plush tomorrow night. And if any of you are East of the Mississippi, you might be able to catch the tour as it continues there.
  • Current Music
    Casimir Pulaski Day - Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise