Sufjan Stevens and Christian Music

Books & Culture have an article in the Nov/Dec issue on Sufjan Stevens, written by two people who are apparently jealous that God bestowed infinitely superior music talent upon Stevens and not them. Their article, besides illuminating nothing about Stevens or the Christian music scene, ends with what is perhaps an unforgivable sin: criticizing Stevens for a lack of musical ability! I quote:
Despite his skills as a lyricist, his limitations as a musician hinder any over-arching artistic unity. Stevens is in many ways a capable composer. Quite a few of his melodic ideas are fresh, interesting, and distinctive, and his arrangements are meticulously crafted. The trouble is that his creativity is limited to essentially two different song-types: an introverted, folksy one and an extroverted, symphonic one. In short, there is a major disconnect between the subtleties of Sufjan Stevens the poet and Sufjan Stevens the composer. His music lacks the carefully modulated gradations of tone, meaning, and mood that distinguish his poetry.
Both authors are musicians and professors at Eastern Nazarene College. I sincerely hope there are enough fans of Sufjan at that school to rise up in mass protest against the libelous lies printed here.


Actually, I agree with the review's observations, but with their value judgments I do not. It's the ongoing debate between Anneli and I, as she finds Sufjan too monotonous. I like peeling back the layers of the symphonies, as nothing else sounds like them.
Perhaps Sufjan will add a new song-type to his sets. Until then, he had me at "illinois."
Anonymous said…
I'll have to look into this article. As a big fan of Sujan, I have to admit that I can at the very least hear where these author are coming from. I don't think I would have prior to hearing him in concert (which I am sad to say was a dissapointment). Still, he is a great poet and more accomplished composer than these authors seem to grant.
Side note, are you going to be at AAR? If so, I wouldn't mind putting a face to a blog.
Monotonous?? A disappointment???

People disappointed by Sufjan are generally people who think they are going to a rock show, when they are going to a classical-folk concert. I have been to two shows now, and both were nothing short of euphoric.

Personally, I find the range in his musical tone to exceed just about everything else in music today. Pick your favorite band. Most likely that artist sticks to a certain style of music. Some might be more aggressive and energetic while others are ballads, but the overall style is the same. This goes for Sufjan as well. He has ballads like "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and rockier songs like "Mr. Supercomputer" and "Chicago." So I have to conclude that people simply don't like the style, which is fine.

But let's be honest here. It's a matter of taste, not a matter of Sufjan's musical talent. The fact that he plays over 20 instruments, composes his own scores for each instrument, and produces much of the music himself should secure his place as one of the top 5 artists alive today.

What did you find disappointing Joshua? Was it a matter of expectations?
Anonymous said…
My problem isn't so much with Stevens (even though I'm not that captivated by his [admittedly skillful] music) as it is with his fans.

I think that a lot of Christians just jump onto Stevens because he is hip with the hipsters... and he's a CHRISTIAN. Look how Christian and how alt-rock we all are! My, my.

(I have similar feelings about the mainstream Christian obsession with U2... except that I also think that most of U2's music is pretty crummy... and Bono is kind of a chump.)

Then again, maybe that's just me being an ass. Still, I'd rather sit down and have a talk with Conor Oberst than I would with Sufjan Stevens.
Any Christian who thinks he or she is a fan of Sufjan simply because he's a Christian is not a real fan. The real fans are those who recognize that Sufjan is simply making the best music today. There are very few artists who are in that category. Conor Oberst is definitely one of them. But Sufjan is infinitely more than just a "Christian artist," and I loathe that term. I hope he is appreciated for the musical genius that he is.
Anonymous said…
In the interest of Christian charity, I am going to refrain from saying all that might be said by way of response to the assertion that the music produced by U2 is "pretty crummy." However, I would still like to register my protest.
Anonymous said…
the disappointment did not come from my expectations of a rock concert. i was fully hoping and expecting something like what you call a classical-folk concert. however, the whole thing just did not work together. the instruments regularly overwhelmed the vocals. the guitar and piano were both lost by the trumpets, etc. there theme of birds in the videos and with the wings they wore didn't come together. i grant some of it may have been the venue (fox theatre in atlanta is beautiful, but it works better as a theatre) and that night. but most of it was aiming high and failing. at least on that night. but i guess if you are going to fail, fail boldly.
timcoe said…
sufjan might be less criticized for monotony if he were less prolific: two 70+ min. albums to be filed under 'the state of illinois'? i have a difficult time listening through all of illinois, due to the aforementioned only two-tone music therein; when the avalanche came out my initial reaction was 'is this necessary?' the songs are different, but the sound is the same.

other musical acts, which you mentioned, get around this, i think, by taking time between releases. e.g. between 1997 and 2000, radiohead had a lot of time to become musically interested in different things, and thus kid a sounds very little like ok computer.
Dave Berge said…
Heresy! "John Wayne Gasey, Jr." is in my top 5 of all-time and "For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti"'d have to be a character from Dave Chapelle's 'Professional Haters' skit to knock Mr. Stevens.