Sufjan Stevens wears wings when he performs live. His fake wingspan, painted with red and purple feathers, is immense – of dragonfly, or angel, proportions, extending several feet past his shoulder blades. The wings befit an artist who named his self-run recording label “Asthmatic Kitty”, and who held a contest for sole ownership of “The Lonely Man of Winter,” an unreleased track that can now only be heard at private listening parties in the winner’s Brooklyn home.
With song titles like "A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze," Sufjan seems to embody all that is precious and self-indulgent about indie music. He should be hated. But after the release of 2003’s Michigan, even the snarkiest music critics didn’t have a negative thing to say about him. It’s almost impossible to find a bad review of Sufjan Stevens’ career-making albums – from A Sun Came in 2000 through Illinois in 2005, with 3 others in between. One reviewer said he “[applies] his various tones, timbres, and textures in the manner of an abstract painter.”
He toes the line between gimmick and sincerity – much of what appears to be affect is not. His name itself, for instance: Sufjan Stevens isn’t an assumed name. It’s the name on his birth certificate, suggested to his parents by the leader of a spiritual sect (a cult, maybe?) they belonged to when he was born; his brother’s name is Marzuki. “It's Armenian,” Sufjan told Pitchfork. “It means ‘comes with a sword.’ It's one of those charming militaristic Muslim names. I guess my purpose in life is to kill and avenge.” His 50 States project – an ambitious plan to devote an album to each of the United States, of which he completed only two – was an admitted publicity stunt. That makes Michigan pretty genuine, after all: just the musings of a Detroit native writing about his home state. And for Illinois, Sufjan researched heavily for four months before starting work on its first song.
That attention to detail characterizes his work. After college, Sufjan took time away from music to pursue his true aspiration: writing, which he studied at the New School in New York City. “Fiction has always been a thorn in my side, because I've always wanted to be a writer but I can't seem to really do it,” he told Pitchfork. (“Plan B has worked out fine,” he admitted a few lines later.) Historical figures – “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” from Illinois, “Adlai Stevenson” from The Avalanche - crop up often in his songs. The storytelling, he says, sometimes captivates him more than the songwriting.
The music doesn’t suffer for it. On Illinois and Michigan, Sufjan played almost every melodic line himself: he recorded some 20-odd instruments, ranging from guitar to oboe, layered over one another. Illinois’ “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” builds from simple plucking to a symphonic crescendo of triumphant horns and choir. His lyrics carry the songs with less elaborate arrangements. Michigan’s “Romulus” is one example: “Our grandpa bought us a new VCR / We watched it all night / We grew up in spite of it.”
Sufjan’s fans follow him with the devotion of religious pilgrims, as if those wings indicated true godliness. When he played a free show at the Kennedy Center for the anniversary of Millenium Stage in 2007, Sufjanites waited in the cold for twenty-six hours to get tickets; those who arrived three hours before seats were distributed went home disappointed. His Michigan and Illinois tours notoriously sold out minutes after tickets went on sale. Those fans, drawn in so completely by Sufjan’s meticulous folk tales, should have worried more when, soon after the release of The Avalanche in 2006, he told Pitchfork, “I'm getting tired of my voice. I'm getting tired of...the banjo. I'm getting tired of...the trumpet.”
After The Avalanche, Sufjan Stevens disappeared. He made sporadic appearances – on the albums of others, and at the Kennedy Center show – but after the prolific 2000-2005 years came a four-year silence. Then, in 2009, he re-emerged with an electronic ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, paired with videography and a forty-page comic book. The following year he released a full-length album for the first time in half a decade. Age of Adz was not the gentle, banjo-plucking Sufjan his fans expected. He cited Royal Robertson, a paranoid schizophrenic artist who died alone and delusional, as a major source of inspiration. He revealed that he’d suffered from a virus that affected his nervous system. He spoke of losing faith in the album and control of his sound waves. He’d lost none of his orchestral complexities, but he’d written electric guitars and crackles instead of acoustic layers, and he’d used autotuning. Age of Adz was an album of barely-contained sonic chaos. A “single track bulges with more engaging ideas than most artists could muster in a career,” the critics at Pitchfork lauded him.
In 2007, Vincent Moon filmed Sufjan Stevens in Cincinnati as part of the Take-Away Shows, a project in which Moon films impromptu outdoor performances by famous musicians. In the video, Moon lures Sufjan up onto a roof, where Moon’s camera circles in search of panoramic views. “It’s too windy,” Sufjan complains. “Let’s go back inside. It’s too cold!” But he’s playing already, and soon his banjo and his “confident whisper” of a voice warm the picture. When the camera finds Sufjan again, it’s surprising how small he is in the frame: alone, in that baseball cap and a brown coat, he looks vulnerable, as if he could easily fall. But when the song, “Lakes of Canada,” ends, the camera moves close on Sufjan’s face. He squints and sucks air through his teeth. “Cold,” he repeats, and as he walks out of frame, the rasp of his hands rubbing together almost sounds like beating wings.