Sufjan Stevens: On the Road to Find Out

Music Features Sufjan Stevens
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On Nov. 2, 2009, Paste magazine released its list of The 50 Best Albums of the Decade, and topping that list was Illinois, the 2005 masterpiece from Sufjan Stevens. Paste’s Kate Kiefer talked to the Illinoisemaker about the album, his 50 States project and his recent orchestral creation The BQE.

From Illinois…

In 2005, when Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, the second album in his planned 50-state project, American pride was at a record low—especially among young people. The death toll in Iraq was steadily climbing, and Abu Ghraib was fresh on our minds. Meanwhile, Stevens was beginning to seem brilliant enough to fulfill his ambitious plan. His music pushed boundaries between pop and classical, and the emotional weight of his lyrics grounded his feather-light voice. There was a distinct peculiarity about Illinois and Stevens himself, who gave his songs titles like “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament.” Critics embraced the mystery and declared the album a masterpiece. Stevens and his band, The Illinoisemakers, wore cheerleading costumes onstage to promote the record, and once its success took them to larger venues, Stevens switched to giant, colorful bird wings. His band was a spectacle, their performances magical. Thousands of fans gathered in theaters across the country to behold this winged creature and rally behind his songs about America’s heartland. It was a new, weird kind of patriotism.

Stevens collected facts and anecdotes about the great state of Illinois, stringing them together in ambitious rhyme schemes and wrapping them in meticulous arrangements. “Decatur, or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother” is superficially a song about a city, but beneath the textbook trivia is Stevens’ story of reconciling with his father’s wife. The gut-wrenching “Casimir Pulaski Day” is about a friend dying of bone cancer, and “The Seer’s Tower” looks at idol worship from the perspective of Chicago’s tallest building. And then there’s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” the hushed, nightmare-inducing acoustic song about the rapist and serial killer who preyed on teenaged boys, hiding their bodies under the floorboards in his Chicago home. “His father was a drinker and his mother cried in bed / Folding John Wayne’s T-shirts when the swing set hit his head,” Stevens sang, referencing a true story—at 11, Gacy was hit in the head by a swing. But the song’s conclusion is what got people talking: “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him,” Stevens half-whispered as the music quieted behind him. “Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” It was startlingly confessional, “a remark about potential more than anything else,” the songwriter says now. “We’re all capable of what he did.” In that particular moment of that particular song, Stevens removed all the intricate instrumentation from his music. He removed his fact-sheet façade and his cheerleader uniform and his bird wings. He was stark naked in front of an audience that turned out to be much wider than he’d expected—for all its idiosyncrasies, Illinois sold more than 300,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Burned by the spotlight, Stevens retreated after Illinois. As anxious fans searched for clues pointing to New York, Washington or New Jersey, expecting another masterful concept album right around the corner, he dabbled in a few side projects but showed no signs of picking up where he left off with Project U.S.A. “The whole premise was such a joke,” he says now, “and I think maybe I took it too seriously. I started to feel like I was becoming a cliché of myself.” Whether or not Stevens ever intended to make a record for every state, he ended up completely derailed by a new project—one people thought was just another whim.

To Brooklyn…

Joseph Melillo, executive director of The Brooklyn Academy of Music, had seen Stevens (a Brooklyn resident) perform the Illinois songs in concert. “He was the one artist who as a singer/songwriter impressed me the most,” Melillo says. “He engaged me with his unique view of the world and his writing—both compositionally and as a musician—but also the words and the language that he was using. I wanted to invest in his creative imagination.” So Melillo invited Stevens to help BAM celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Next Wave Festival, which showcases contemporary, nontraditional performing arts. The commission was simple: Compose a piece about Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is a controversial highway. It displaced thousands of New Yorkers during construction in the ’40s and ’50s, and it’s widely regarded as an eyesore. The road is also dangerous, due to narrow lanes and sharp curves. “Everyone’s always complaining about it, but it’s interesting that it runs through the entire borough, sort of the one thing that is constant,” Stevens says. “I just liked that it seemed to be a running theme physically and conceptually, and it has beautiful views of Brooklyn and of Manhattan.” It was settled: Stevens would call his performance The BQE.

“I think that he surprised himself, to be truthful,” says Melillo, who called occasionally to check in while Stevens was writing. “He kept saying how intensive it was for him. This is the element of surprise—how deeply he went into his art. That he was living, drinking and sleeping the BQE. That the creative endeavor, the engagement, was occupying his entire life.”

Stevens composed a soundtrack to accompany a film built around footage of the highway. The three-night performance in November 2007 was a true multimedia experience—complete with 35 musicians, strobe lights and interpretive hula-hoop dancing, it was Stevens’ most ambitious undertaking yet, an intensely creative self-reflection from a man who had realized his potential. At times The BQE sounds like a symphony—his classical compositions are instantly relatable, taking cues from great American composers like Copland and Gershwin—but Stevens’ pop proclivity is alive and well. He explores jazz and electronic music, too, and sprinkles his compositions with the whimsical flutes and horns we’ve come to expect. The powerful suite relates the expressway’s sharp curves, the moments of panic when its lanes get too narrow, the speedups and slowdowns of traffic, and the beautiful views of New York’s finest neighborhoods. In one pair of songs, “Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise” and “Movement IV: Traffic Shock,” Stevens performs a melody using classical instrumentation and then abruptly turns the same line into an electronic track, defying genre confines and proving that a good melody transcends instrumentation—and words and time and place.

The performance ended, but Stevens couldn’t get off the expressway—the BQE had seeped into every aspect of his artistic life. “In all honesty, that piece is what really sabotaged my creative momentum. It wasn’t Illinois so much,” he says. “I suffered sort of an existential creative crisis after that piece. 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.”

Melillo isn’t surprised. “It’s the magnitude of what he accomplished … he allowed his creative imagination to just unfold. It’s almost like Wagner—it’s so big that you think about what is going to happen next in his creative life, and it makes sense. Something new opened up for him, and now he has to go back to his source material—what is it to be a singer/songwriter, to be more intimate in his storytelling and singing for an audience, and what does that mean to him?” he says. “Like any artist who creates a work of significance, it simply takes time to regenerate.”

...And Beyond

Meanwhile, the Internet was doing its best to make LPs obsolete, pushing Stevens further and further from the kind of songwriting he’s hardly attempted since Illinois. “I’m wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download? Why are songs like three or four minutes, and why are records 40 minutes long? They’re based on the record, vinyl, the CD, and these forms are antiquated now. So can’t an album be eternity, or can’t it be five minutes?” He pauses. “I no longer really have faith in the album anymore. I no longer have faith in the song.”

Stevens tested his faith during a stint of live shows in September and October, working through the confusion with song forms that were 10 minutes or more, both with and without lyrics. He hasn’t found the next step in his creative progression, but returning to the narrative songwriting of Illinois is out of the question—it would mean denying the enlightenment he experienced at BAM.

This fall, Stevens will release a CD soundtrack of The BQE along with a DVD of the footage and a stereoscopic 3-D Viewmaster reel. In the liner notes, he writes, “And then it hits you: If skyscrapers are the ultimate phallic symbols, then the urban expressway is the ultimate birth canal, the uterine wall, the anatomical passageway, the ultimate means of egress, and the process by which we are all born again. The BQE is the Motherhood of Civilization, the Breast of Being, the fallopian tube, the biological canal from which all of life emerges in resplendent beauty, newborn and newly fashioned with the immaculate countenance of a baby.” And maybe there’s something to that. Illinois is what it is—a necessary part of a creative journey that cannot end in the same place it started. Untethered by musical tradition, the expectations of his fans and the prospect of record sales, Stevens changed direction; he was reborn. It happened somewhere on that treacherous expressway, long after he left Illinois.