Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Sufjan Concert

Sufjan Stevens played in Oakland last week. I have a few rules in life. One of them is: If Sufjan Stevens is playing within 100 miles and you have the opportunity to go with some of your best friends in the world[1]…you do that. He played for almost two hours and it was as much theatrical art as it was a concert. The show opened with Seven Swans and closed with Chicago and was nothing but new music in between. This could have been a recipe for disappointment, primarily because his new music is such a shocking departure from what we love about Sufjan.[2] But I thought it was fantastic. In a sense, the new material works better as a show than as an album…and it really did work as a show. For two hours, a series of short films played behind Sufjan and his 9 piece band as he alternated between the epic, cosmic pieces like “Age of Adz” and “Too Much”, and more familiar “Futile Divices” or “Now that I’m Older.”

If he had just gotten up there and sung the new album without regard for our passion for the old stuff, it would have struck me as self involved marketing. But it was impossible to feel that way with all that went into crafting an experience of his new music. It held together as an intentional and cohesive piece of art. As much as I would have loved to hear “The Wasps of the Palisades” or “Cashmere Pulaski Day” they would not have cohered with the show he crafted. He was not playing a set. He was telling a story.[3] In a sense, he was performing a single, two-hour, piece that he had prepared for us. It felt special.

And then, for the encore, he came up alone and banged out three of his best songs from his earlier work. I would have paid the ticket price just for the encore. Anyway, while I am on the topic, I thought I’d tack on “Four things I love about Sufjan.”

1. His song titles.

They are just way more fun than anyone else’s. Consider songs like:

The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is out to Get Us!
They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!!
Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? ...)
Springfield, Or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair
Or the musical interlude:
Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It

There was a fun Facebook group[4] dedicated to why members thought their state should get the next Sufjan album. In one discussion we took shots at what a Sufjan playlist might look like for our states. Here is what I came up with for NY[5]:

The last one out of Buffalo turn out the lights[6]
Old movies with the twin towers in them make me sad
Born During the Blizzard of '77
Stuck on 37 high peaks with deteriorating knees
A Resilient People in a Belt of Rust and Weather
Oh, Opalescent Feldspar, The Billion Year Rock Rainbow
The Silent Shafts (or Ore is More Profitable in Minnesota)
More cows than you would imagine
Purple lufstrife is Montazuma's revenge
The surprisingly resurgent Rochester (or, Mr. Eastman[8], was your work really done?)[9]

2. Art with a sense of place

I have mentioned before in this blog that the art I tend to resonate with finds generality in specificity. In particular, I love art that can find something as broad as ‘human nature’ in a very particular sense of situatedness. This is why I enjoyed Garden State. This is why I loved The Wire. And this is why Illinois is one of the greatest albums of all times. Illinois generates the emotion of a Midwest upbringing that connects with our humanity in a study of similarity and contrast. Intentional spatial locatedness gives his work a surprising generality.

3. ‘Christian’ makes a great noun but a horrible adjective.'[10]

Sufjan writes about whatever he thinks or experiences. So he writes about Jesus and being a Christian and stuff. I, obviously, love this, because, well, I am also interested in Jesus and being a Christian and stuff.[11]

Near the middle of the concert he performed the sprawling “Get Real Get Right”[12], which ends with the verse:

For you will not be distracted by the signs
Do not be distracted by them
Do yourself a favor and get real
Get right with the lord
Get real, get right with the Lord

After the applause someone yelled ‘Praise Jesus’, which was quickly followed by someone else shouting ‘no.’ I loved this exchange (particularly the latter part) because it demonstrates the difference between an artist who is a Christian and a Christian artist. We do not own Sufjan. He is not ours in a way that a Christian act is.[13] We have not claim of ownership on him.[14] So he is free to do art, and not just produce a commodity for a niche community. It also demonstrates that there is not an insidious anti-Christian bias in the music industry. If Christians make great art, they get to make it about whatever they love.[15]

4. John Wayne Gacy

He closed with what I would consider his three most theological songs from Seven Swans and Illinois…culminating in his most controversial and most haunting piece: “John Wayne Gacy”. Gacy (who grew up in Illinois, hence, the tracks appearance on that album) was a famous serial killer. Known as ‘the clown killer’ he lured boys into his orbit, and then did unspeakable things…eventually collecting their bodies under his porch.

The song hauntingly describes the crimes.

Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

I remember clearly the first time I heard it.[16] I was driving from Jackson to Vicksburg. It was chilling. But the final verse held more in store than I could have ever imagined. The song ends, somewhat abruptly:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Some have interpreted this song as excusing Gacy…as a behaviorist apologetic blaming the actions of a monster on his environment. They hear this last verse and think ‘he is not just like me, he is qualitatively different.’ But the interpretive key to this song is actually Christian anthropology. Sufjan is not saying that he is just like me except for some bad luck in his environment. He is saying[17] that except for some social coping mechanisms, I am just like him. The difference is quantitative not qualitative. My heart hides its own dark secrets. The monster is me. The remedy…well, I think you might find it amidst a septet of graceful birds:

This post was written while listening to The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens
[1] Amanda, Tyler the winemaker and his wife Byranie.
[2] He described the mood and themes of the new work as ‘cosmic’ and ‘processed based’ which is exactly the opposite of why I love Sufjan, which is universal story telling through the vehicle of the very, very particular (see "Why I love Sufjan #2). For the record, I hope he is not done with albums like Illinoise or Seven Swans…but I think The Age of Adz is a win.
[3] Which is ironic (ITWIHACTIK) because he sees this album as a departure from his fundamental nature as a lyrical storyteller, but the reason he couldn’t sprinkle older works into the concert is because it would have destroyed the continuity of the narrative structure.
[4] Which has mostly gone defunct since Sufjan revealed that the 50 states project was either a joke or WILDLY optimistic.
[5] Mostly upstatecentric
[6] When the steal mills were shutting down in the 70’s someon actually put a sign up that said this on I5 on the way out of town.
[7] There is a wildlife refuge in Western NY called Monazuma’s wildlife refuge. I-80 passes through it. It is overrun with the invasive purple lustrife.
[8] George Eastman’s (of Eastman-Kodak) suicide note read: “To my friends: My work is done. Why wait?”
[9] Some of the other fun titles on the site included:
California: Whose Fault? The San Andreas Fault/ The Worst Day in the Happiest Place on Earth
New York: Go F**K Yourself, Or what the Passerby said to me/What is Eirer than a Canal?/ / One Thousand Islands and not a single soul/ The Longest Island, that Spit of Land
Pennsylvania: A short Reprise for Bob Saget, who went insane, but for very good reasons
[10] From Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis.
[11] I think that sentence set a record for illicit comma use…but I cannot deconvolve the good ones from the imposters.
[12] The title track and a sort of homage to a complicated man who seemed to act as his muse for this album: an isolated, poor, bipolar sign painter from Mississippi who became too enveloped by an alternate reality to be able to live in this one. Apparently most of the cover art and a lot of the art used in the video portion of the show was his.
[13] Nor would most Christian labels have him as his latest album contains a couple (gasp) F-bombs. I am not entirely sure how we got here where an artfully used explative is more offensive than derivative art.
[14] Both ideologically or financially. Sufjan has his own label…which, incidentally has the uncontested best label name on the planet: “Asthmatic Kitty.”
[15] Well, I know it is quite a bit more complex than this. But this idea plays in the discussion.
[16] A good sign of an epic song.
[17] And I think the video underscores this.


Anonymous said...

First of all, I'm totally envious that you were able to see Sufjan. My wife and I tried to buy tickets to the Atlanta show, but I procrastinated too long and it sold out.

"there is not an insidious anti-Christian bias in the music industry. If Christians make great art, they get to make it about whatever they love."

I think that Christians need to be reminded of this from time to time. People respect good art. There is a reason that there is no market overlap between the Praise & Worship industry and the "secular" (that word makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit) music industry.

Oftentimes it's not the fact that we are Christians that we are isolated and rejected by society... its because we do really isolating things like make bad art or make ridiculous statements.

You with us said...

Tyler and I are all aglow at the "some of our best friends" statement. The feeling is mutual.

Love reading your thoughts. "‘Christian’ makes a great noun but a horrible adjective" is very aptly put.

Also, "there is not an insidious anti-Christian bias in the music industry. If Christians make great art, they get to make it about whatever they love." Illustrated so perfectly by that concert. "Praise Jesus!" ... "No!"

Would it be okay with you if I linked to this post? You have such a good way of crystallizing ideas I can struggle to get my mind around, let alone my words.

JMBower said...

So very jealous. I missed seeing him once, and I rue the day.

I do like the earlier stuff better than the current album (the well worn cry of fans everywhere...) ut it certainly is worth a couple more listens. AS for the old stuff, I can't listen to Casimir Pulaski Day without crying. Literally. HIts a little too close to home and feels a little to overwrought melodrama, just the light, almost airy feel of everything gone wrong, where you feel like the world should stop for you but it doesn't even notice.

I think you're right on the money about musicians who draw from being Christian versus Christian labels. To be honest, I never could stand the majority of "Christian" seemed like an industry solely devoted to fabricating "new clothes" for the Emperor. Of course there were/are a few gems, but so much of it is just.....hard to listen to. I remember going to a Carmen concert in my youth and thinking "This makes me want to pray......that he'll finish soon." And then he started old-white-man-rapping. (Because he's down with the kids, you know.)

Great post, as usual. Your NY song list is nothing short of fantastic.