Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Sufjan Stevens Interview

Ran across this interview (it's a couple of weeks old now) with Sufjan Stevens at Gapers Block, a Chicago-based webzine. Stevens just released a new album, Illinois, the second in his ambitious plan (pipe-dream? publicity stunt/talking point?) to release albums about all 50 states (the first, Greetings From Michigan, was released in 2003). Illinois contains 22 songs, so a slight bit of math will help you realize that the man had better be prolific if he really expects to pull this off.

As the interview makes clear, the state theme is really just a framework upon which to hang character studies -- and the same was true with Michigan. Stevens has a distinct literary bent. In the wrong hands, of course, a literary bent and a pop song (folk song? folk song may be closer to the mark) are a bad, bad combination. The literary aspect is quite literal actually, as Stevens admits that he's never been to most of the places he writes about (can't blame him for that, of course), and any local references are based on his research and reading.

Stevens makes it work, though, for two reasons. First, he's thoughtful. Some of his interview responses are capable of inducing eye-rolls, but generally they're engaging and expressive:
I'm not the authority on trends. My advice is: wait 50 years and see what remains, what continues to resonate, what unearths itself. By then there will be an objectivity of language, breathing room for the historians. Our culture in particular is too quick to apply terms to immediate phenomena; we hardly give ourselves the chance to experience something in the fullness of being before we begin to endorse taglines and catchphrases — willfully and haphazardly — which often conceal the truth behind anything. I find this a little bit irresponsible.

Now, in terms of literary songwriting, I still believe that at the crux of every song is a narrative. The past 50 years have introduced a trend of simplifying and scaling down, so that the song no longer evokes a complete narrative but casts a primitive survey of catchphrases and clichés. I use the short story formula: observational detail, sensory language, landscape, setting, and character development. Sometimes I think every song needs a point of conflict, a crisis, a climax, a denouement. These are structures of literature, of course. But maybe it's because I'm so old school.

This degree of thoughtfulness comes out in his best songs -- he actually has something interesting to say about his subjects -- along with his expressive precision (the other reason he can pull off the literary pretensions). If you're going to attempt a character study in a four-minute album cut, you'd better be able to paint your picture with a minimum of language. My favorite example of this is from Michigan's "The Upper Peninsula:"
I live in a trailer home
With a snowmobile, my car
The window is broken out
And the interstate is far
Four lines, and the lonely isolation of the subject is set.

I haven't bought Illinois just yet, but have downloaded a few songs, including what has to be the most controversial Stevens has ever written, "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," in which his character study abilities are applied to the most heinous figure in the memory of the state. Need to pick it up soon.


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