By Matt Kelly
This past August 20th there was a small shockwave sent through the indie music landscape. That’s because folk hero Sufjan Stevens randomly announced and released a new EP called All Delighted People on the same day without any prior warning. On that same August day I was getting ready to move out and begin my new life as a college student, but that momentous occasion meant nothing to me at that moment – I dropped my suitcases (that probably should have been filled with clothes by that point), strapped on my headphones, and sank into the first conventional collection of new Sufjan Stevens material in the past five years. That’s right. Five years. A long time for any devoted fan to wait for their favorite artist, but an absolute eternity for Sufjan Stevens’ fans like myself after we were treated to one of the best albums of the past decade. I’m referring, of course, to the second album in Sufjan’s über-ambitious 50 states project, Illinois, that was named by Metacritic as the best-reviewed album of 2005.
A few days later, Stevens announced that he will finally release a full-length LP entitled The Age of Adz on October 12, making the comeback complete. I found this a bit humorous myself, seeing as how All Delighted People (which is supposed to be an EP) was nearly an hour long for only EIGHT songs. It’s basically an album in itself. But this is also a telling insight about the mind of Sufjan Stevens: An hour long EP is nowhere out of the ordinary, because if there’s anything we’ve learned about Sufjan, it’s that for him the music has to be on an epic scale or else it’s a bust and half-assing something is simply not an option. It’s an extremely noble way of making music, but it can be an extremely frustrating thing for music fans to swallow, especially now when a new song or album that we want to hear is just a click of the mouse away. Increased access to our music has also led to an increase in our musical metabolism, and just like the morning after eating a delicious meal we are always left wanting more from our favorite artists. Over the past 5 years, I’m sure that Sufjan Stevens has heard everyone telling him how great Illinois was and asking him when his next album is coming out and which U.S. state it would be about. Frankly, if I ever had the chance to meet Sufjan Stevens I would probably ask him the same questions myself. This “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” attitude we carry with our musicians is nothing new, however. In fact, when I sat down and thought about the things that the guy has gone through (evidently I have a lot of free time on my hands), I almost immediately was reminded of one of my other musical icons – Brian Wilson. Of course, the days of surf rock and the British Invasion seem nearly archaic when compared to the digitalized and incredibly fragmented music scene we have today. But I feel like there are a lot of similarities in the music making styles of Brian Wilson and Sufjan Stevens in that they both evoked a perhaps transcendent reaction of frustration and confusion. Historically, the music buying public has had a hard time understanding why a band or a musician would take so long to make one stupid album. Most of the time, they start to assume that the band is about to break up if they wait more than two years to promote something new.
After the release of the Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds and subsequently the band’s #1 hit “Good Vibrations”, Brian Wilson’s ambition started to grow exponentially. While the album only reached #10 on the charts thanks to a lifeless advertising campaign by Capitol Records, it was largely applauded by the music industry. Thanks in large part to the Beach boys’ publicist Derek Taylor, the word “genius” was now a part of every Brian Wilson article. Paul McCartney of the Beatles was quoted as saying that Pet Sounds was his favorite album and that it was a primary inspiration for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the critics’ eyes, the band had successfully responded to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and were on their way to (briefly) reclaiming the title of “America’s favorite band”. However, the lackluster sales and recognition among the music buying public deeply disappointed Wilson, and he was desperate to come up with a chart-topping hit. Bolstered by a new-found partner in lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson set about to making an album about happier and more optimistic aspects of Americana as the country itself was experiencing radical upheaval and change in the latter half of the 1960’s. As his prowess in the studio expanded, Wilson’s legendary sense of harmony and sound was suddenly unchained and uninhibited and as he continued to write new songs, he began to describe this new project as a “teenage symphony to God.” “One day, I’ll write song that people will pray to,” he told the Rolling Stones’ producer – and if you’ve ever heard his song “Our Prayer” (a product of the SMiLE era), it’s hard to argue with that statement. Brian Wilson’s mind was working on an extremely large and abstract scale as he created dozens of detached verses and melodies that even he had trouble piecing together into actual songs. There were legendary stories of Wilson installing a giant sand box in his house as well as a tent. There was also undeniably a fair amount of recreational drug use during this period, but to identify drugs as the “red herring” of the SMiLE sessions (as some rock journalists have suggested) are a bit of an exaggeration in my opinion.
Unfortunately, time and expectations were not willing to wait. Capitol Records was desperate to capitalize on the success of Pet Sounds and rumors of what was going on with the SMiLE sessions were beginning to leak out to the press. The classical composer Leonard Bernstein featured the demo of “Surf’s Up” in a TV special, and soon there were articles on what was being billed as one of the most complex arrangements in popular music. Meanwhile, the rest of the Beach Boys had been touring England while Brian was in the studio, and when they returned they were surprised to hear the material that Brian was working on. It’s safe to say that Wilson was somewhat crushed when the rest of the band were unreceptive and unsupportive of the music that he had been pouring all of his energy into for many months. Vocalist Mike Love felt that that the Beach Boys were not the right band for the music and that they should stick to the winning formula that had first brought them success. Furthermore, Brian Wilson was preoccupied with a race to release the “new sound” before anyone else, namely the Beatles (who by that time were in recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s). As time went on, Brian began to have doubts as to whether the album could be pulled together and he couldn’t handle the resistance from the rest of the band. Unfortunately, the dissolution of SMiLE is one of the most legendary stories in the history of rock and roll, and until Brian finally went back in the studio and finished the album in 2004 SMiLE was widely remembered as the greatest album to have never been released. Brian Wilson deteriorated until he finally suffered an emotional breakdown, and he would not consistently contribute to the Beach Boys for almost an entire decade.
Four decades later, Sufjan Stevens is experiencing many of the same drawbacks of fame and success as Brian Wilson. Stevens’ 50 states project – in which he planned to make a album about each U.S. state – was totally admirable and fascinating, yet it may have been a bit overambitious and perhaps even an impossible dream. In an interview with Paste magazine, Sufjan admitted it himself, stating that, “The whole premise was such a joke, and I think maybe I took it too seriously. I started to feel like I was becoming a cliché of myself.” Illinois was a very emotionally invested album, and it’s understandable that Stevens felt like he didn’t want to pigeonhole himself and become “The 50 states guy” for the rest of his career. It seems as if Sufjan Stevens has been catching a lot of flack from the media for taking so long to release a proper follow-up, it isn’t as if he has been sitting idly for the past 5 years. Last year Stevens released a symphonic piece entitled The BQE, which was a 40 minute suite about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York City. The music was a soundtrack for footage that Sufjan shot of the expressway with a 16-mm camera. He also released a Christmas album in 2006, complete with many new holiday songs and not just kitschy covers of classic carols. Stevens has also contributed to the two most recent albums by The National and co-produced several albums on his Asthmatic Kitty label. He’s even penned a new verse for “The Star Spangled Banner”.
However, there has definitely been a shift in the perception of indie folk’s foremost singer-songwriter. Gone are the days when he “slept in parking lots” and waxed whimsically about Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow. Sufjan certainly seems a bit more cynical, and while he may have kept himself busy he has certainly retreated from the spotlight that emerged after Illinois. Part of the explanation for his absence from the music scene can be attributed to The BQE project, a project that was done on such a grand scale that it left Stevens intellectually barren – to the point that he revealed, “That piece is what really sabotaged my creative momentum. I no longer knew what a song was and how to write an album. It overextended me in a way that I couldn’t find my way back to the song.” Perhaps even more telling, however is Stevens’ reaction to the Internet and the new downloading culture that has arisen. Technology has made the concept of an album nearly useless, and it pushed Stevens to nearly send the indie music scene into cardiac arrest earlier this year when he lamented, “I no longer really have faith in the album anymore. I no longer have faith in the song.” That’s pretty heavy stuff and it suggests a musician who has had enough of the expectations and the unforgiving mechanics of the music industry.
Fortunately, Sufjan Stevens has apparently come back around to the album with his two new releases here in 2010. It is interesting, however, to compare the similarities of the career arcs of two musicians who were considered “geniuses” of their respective genres. Both released landmark albums that will stand the tests of time as defining albums of their generations, and instead of copying the formula and relying on the same sound that made them so successful, both Wilson and Stevens sought to explore new musical frontiers and try things that had never been attempted before in the industry. Unfortunately, both men got an ugly taste of the impatience of the public and the media, and that disruption of their creative visions led both of them to almost completely lose interest in making music. While Sufjan Stevens has been able to bounce back much quicker than Brian Wilson (everything in music seems to be accelerated to the nth degree these days), the experience has definitely given him a more jaded frame of mind – as evidenced in the lyrics of “Enchanted Ghost” and “The Owl and the Tanager” from the All Delighted People EP and “I Walked” from his upcoming Age of Adz LP. Wilson was able to miraculously overcome his depression and his severe case of stage fright to finally finish SMiLE and vanquish his personal demons, and here’s hoping that The Age of Adz will have the same healing powers for Sufjan Stevens.