“Follow your heart, follow the flame, or fall on the floor”

It’s a motto that Sufjan Stevens forces on himself in ‘Vesuvius’, but it’s one that he’s been following for his entire career.

He’s never been one to follow the popular music trends, conform to the whims of journalism, or to try to recreate his own success. Stevens has carved out an entirely unique path for himself, one that has twisted from the majestic and complex pop of Illinois to the mind-bending orchestral electronica of Age of Adz.

There are few other contemporary artists that have spanned as many genres as successfully and cleverly as he has, and fewer still that have maintained their integrity and passion along the way.

It’s been Stevens’ want and willingness to constantly experiment, to throw out the successful blueprint and start from scratch, that makes him one of the most important and influential musicians today.

No other artists has so openly explored religious themes and questioned their own faith. No other artist has been able to cross so many genres while still maintaining his own artistic uniqueness. No other artist has been able to explore religion and faith so interestingly without sounding preachy. No other artist today is as important as Sufjan Stevens.

The concept album has become somewhat of a lost artform, but it’s one that Stevens has toyed with regularly in his career. His first album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, was based on the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. The short-lived Fifty States Project, where he apparently planned to write a record centred on each American state, typifies the artist’s ability to seamlessly mould tradition, mythology and his own personal experiences into one cohesive whole.

The first product of the 50 States Project, Michigan, was extremely personal for Sufjan. Centred on his home state, it takes an honest look at the unemployment and homelessness that has plagued Michigan, as well as intimate explorations of absent parents and growing up. This was the first moment Sufjan fully combined his sparse folk stylings with expansive orchestral arrangements, and it formed the solid foundation for Illinois to come.

The first song on the album, ‘Flint’, details Stevens’ ability to sometimes move away from the personal and take on an entirely new persona. The song’s narrator feels guilt about not having a job, with homelessness pervading the city of Flint, 66 miles from Detroit. Although it’s not about him personally, the wavering “even if I die” at the end shows he’s still feeling it just as much.

‘For the Widows in Paradise’ became the first of many Sufjan Stevens songs to ingrain itself into popular culture, mainly thanks to that funeral scene in The OC. He’s described the song as detailing how he attended a football game in the town of Paradise and noticed a lot of single mothers, but no men. But as with most of his songs, and as the OC proved, it’s just as easy to interpret it as a mournful ode to a lost lover, or whatever else the listener is experiencing.

And that’s exactly how Sufjan likes it. It’s easy to appreciate and love his music without fully understanding the religious and mythological backstory that is included in many of them. There’s enough raw human emotion and struggles in there to make them accessible for everyone.

Released in 2005, Illinois was undoubtedly the outstanding success of the project. It’s intimate and at times quiet, but also reaches grand scales and orchestral crescendos. The large orchestral arrangements are played almost entirely by Stevens himself. It’s everything that was good about the 50 States Project. Many songs focus on specific events in the state: a famed UFO sighting near Highland, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and several other people and places. But the album is so much more than just a history lesson on Illinois. Interweaved with the historical context, each song has a very personal, relatable element to it drawing from Stevens own life.

‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ mixes the state holiday with a brutally raw account of a friend’s battle with cancer. Most of the song is Sufjan recalling seemingly random moments with his friend, the way the light struck them one day, their untied shoes, until: In the morning when you finally go”. His friend passes away on Casimir Pulaski Day, leading Sufjan to question his faith in the simplest and most common way. “All the glory when he took our place / But he took my shoulders and he shook my face / And he takes and he takes and he takes”.

Unique and unparalleled exploration isn’t contained to his lyrics though. There’s the acoustic folk of his latest effort, the orchestral pop of Illinois, the expansive electronica of Age of Adz, and even a hip-hop side project. No other contemporary artist has explored music and its many forms as extensively or successfully as Sufjan Stevens has.

After the overwhelming success of Illinois, Stevens retreated from the spotlight, and from music in general. He wouldn’t release any material for five years, and told BeatRoute Magazine: “I’m getting tired of my voice. I’m getting tired of the banjo. I’m getting tired of the trumpet”.

It was Age of Adz that proved Sufjan Stevens is a musical genius. It isn’t his best album or most refined, but it’s by far his most adventurous and experimental

Stevens is impossibly creative, and like most artists, he seems to get bored easily. Despite the success of his folk music, he soon grows tired of it. Instead of trying to recreate Illinois or Michigan, he turned his attention to other projects.

In 2007 the Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned him to work on a project about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This would mark a turning point in Sufjan’s musical career.

What was eventually created was a decidedly odd and somewhat dull rumination on a highway, but it was the process and switch from his usual method that influenced Stevens. “[The BQE] kinda sabotaged the mechanical way of approaching my music, which was basically narrative long-form,” he told BeatRoute Magazine in 2010. “It really opened things up for me. It also confused things as well. I don’t think I ever really fully recovered from that process.”

When Sufjan Stevens released his sixth studio album on the 12th of October 2010, titled The Age of Adz it took nearly everyone by surprise. It was five years on from the widely acclaimed and adored Illinois, the album that catapulted him into the mainstream. But despite this success, or perhaps because of it, Stevens moved as far away as possible from his last effort.

The Age of Adz is by far his most ambitious and wonderfully weird release. Incorporating heavy experimental electronic sound with more traditional, complex orchestral arrangements, the album marked another turning point for the illustrious artist.

[include_post id=”320372″] The sparse acoustic guitars and plucked banjos were replaced with glitchy drum beats and heavily auto-tuned vocals. It seemed like an album from a musician suffering from a musical existential crisis of some sort. It was a talented artist experimenting and trying new avenues, and it didn’t all work. But most of it did.

And it wasn’t just in terms of the instruments. The lyrics no longer focused on places and people, but instead revolved around, and took inspiration from the apocalyptic work of visual artist Royal Robertson, who battled with schizophrenia. He still manages to combine personal, intimate details with more expansive themes, but this time round it’s not set in a single location, a single state, it’s set in a troubled mind and an apocalyptic world.

It was Age of Adz that proved Sufjan Stevens is a musical genius. It isn’t his best album or most refined, but it’s by far his most adventurous and experimental. It’s his most musically interesting one in terms of instruments and sonic exploration, and proved he’s much more than just the gimmicky 50 States Project.

There are no immediate ‘hits’ or instantly relatable songs on the album, but tracks like the life-affirming ‘Now That I’m Older’ slowly grow and become impossibly infectious. And then there’s ‘Impossible Soul’. The 25-minute epic is a mini-album in itself, taking the listener on a journey through different genres and a range of themes.

It certainly isn’t for everyone, and it received very mixed reviews. But it earned a place in several ‘best of 2010’ lists, scored Stevens his best first week sales at the time, and also reached the top ten of the Billboard200.

Then, two years later, Stevens’ birthmother died. Carrie suffered through mental illness for most of Sufjan’s life, and was diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia. He was mostly raised by his father and stepmother. It seems Stevens’ dealt with the grief and strange concoction of emotions he felt after this by returning to his roots.

He went from his most ambitious, expansive and experimental album in Age of Adz, to by far his sparsest yet, this year’s Carrie & Lowell. But it’s also probably the best album he’s ever released.

There’s no overarching mythology or state-based gimmick underlying the songs, it’s all just raw emotion, both anger and sadness and everything in between. Stevens is confronting his demons, and his mixed feelings for his mother through music, and we’re lucky to play witness to him. There are few other musicians around today that could pull off such a feat – to be so raw and intimate without ever feeling manipulative or insincere.

The album directly addresses mental health and suicide. Stevens never flinches away from the brutal and often devastating realism of existence.

On ‘Fourth of July’ Sufjan is backed by only quiet keyboard chords as he details a conversation with his mother on her deathbed. It could be real or it could be entirely imagined, but it doesn’t really matter. “It was night when you died, my firefly,” he laments, before taking on the persona of his mother. “I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best / Though it never felt right,” she says through him. It’s most likely the apology Sufjan has been waiting for his whole life. “We’re all gonna die”, she repeats in an effort to console him. There are few songwriters that could pull off a chorus of “we’re all gonna die” without sounding tacky or overly nihilistic, but for Stevens it just works.

This ability is also seen on Illinois’ ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’, perhaps Stevens’ most harrowing and challenging song. In it, he somehow manages to personalise and empathise with one of America’s worst serial killers. “His father was a drinker and his mother cried in bed” it begins. He explores the nature of evil and human spirit throughout it. It’s thought-provoking and challenges your beliefs, and that’s exactly what lyrical music like this should do. He even ends up by comparing himself to the man: “And in my best behaviour / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid”.

Carrie & Lowell is a return to the acoustic folk of his earlier work, but still marks a departure from there. It’s far more sparse and restrained than anything he’s done before. There are no drums at all, and each song is built on a single acoustic guitar or keyboard.

[include_post id=”447985″]Few people can tackle religion respectfully and insightfully through their chosen art. It mostly becomes written off as “religious music” and offers little actual insight into human faith and belief. But throughout his entire work Stevens has been able to extol his Christianity while also showing that he’s human. He constantly questions and criticises his faith through his music.

Most musicians either hide their chosen faith or skirt around it in the music, but Sufjan is unashamed and lays it all out bare. Seven Swans, an earlier album, is his most overtly religious work, with many of the songs featuring references to biblical fables, that said nearly all of his songs can be interpreted in some way as relating to faith and religion. Seven Swans is pretty much a Christian album, with stories ranging from the death of Christ to his second coming, but there’s just as much there for non-believers and sceptics to enjoy. It’s music about religion, but it can’t be branded as religious music.

In doing so, Stevens is able to make important observations of how humans interact with their faith and question higher powers in the wake of traumatic events. There’s the constant questioning on ‘Casimir’, while on ‘Drawn to the Blood’ he again questions his religion following the death of his mother. “For my prayer has always been love / What did I do to deserve this?”.

He’s also so important because he never shies away from questioning his own craft. Many songs contain self-referential, self-conscience musings on songwriting and art. There’s “words are futile devices” and “what’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?”. In an interview with Exclaim Magazine, he was even more blunt: “What’s the point of making music anymore? I’m starting to get sick of my conceptual ideas”.

But it seems Sufjan’s ways of dealing with these fears and creative blocks is to hone in on a single issue, whether it be an American state, an apocalyptic artist, or the death of a family member. He is able to explore these issues in a way that is relatable to all, and also force the listener to pause and think about what he’s saying and how it applies to them. It takes an immense and unrivalled talent to do this, and there are no other artists around today that do it as well as Sufjan Stevens.

Across the years, Sufjan Stevens has built up a close personal connection with all his listeners through his music. It’s an intimate one, Sufjan shares his innermost feelings, fears, and passions, as well as all his experimentations through instruments and genres. For everything that he’s done, and will do, he’s just about the most important artist of our generation. He’s unrivalled in his scope, courage, intellect, and talent. While many artists today possess some of these attributes, few others manage to continually combine them across so many differing releases.

There’s barely been a falter across his whole career, and it seems like it’s all been planned from the very start: every drastic genre shift, every new mythology, every intimate insight into Sufjan’s mind and emotions. As he sings on the Michigan closer: “Rest in my arms / Sleep in my bed / There’s a design / To what I did and said”.

Sufjan Stevens will be performing as part of Vivid Live at The Sydney Opera House from the 22nd – 25th of May. For tickets and info visit www.vividlive.com

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