Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What's Wrong with Sufjan Stevens, or: Why Sufjan Stevens Used to Be So Good, or: Why Absurdly Long Titles and Epic Songs Become Boring

Illinois (or, Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come On! and Feel the Illinoise; I'll stick with the latter) perfected the hyper-specificity quotidian epic that Sufjan Stevens introduced on Greetings from Michigan; The Avalanche - quite naturally, being that it was an almost track-for-track b-side to Illinois - sounded a good deal like Illinois. Admittedly, it was inferior; the songs simply were not as good. But that wasn't the only, or primary, problem.

A sense of dynamics is obvious when reduced to the level of song: a banging chorus complements a pensive verse or tension-filled bridge. Ditto the in- and converse. (Although punk rock tried real hard to debase this idea; then again, punk rock did many things that, although based on a sound ideology, didn't work very well when applied to music practice.) Less obvious (as witnessed by the often ridiculous awful tracklisting on many of today's albums) is the necessity for dynamics on an album. Simply put, not every song can be an epic, album-closing banger. Nor can (although this is much less of a real problem) every song be a soft strummer. (Actually, I take this back: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy pulled it off real nice with I See a Darkness.)

The problem at hand, and even less obvious: dynamics are just as necessary in concert as they are in an album or song. Stevens would have done well to know this before performing Oct. 10 at the Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Every song - maybe 3 excepted -, and even songs that worked perfectly well in their original form, was made "epic." That is, a song-ending crescendo, a two minute blast of feedback, a bombastic vocal interlude, whatever Stevens could do to make his humble songs more grandiose was done.

Ok, not a real problem in itself. The concert was good, really, I had a great time. But the nagging question is why? Why add this grandiosity to perfectly good songs, a grandiosity that quickly waxes monotonous. Well, obviously, it's because Stevens - consciously or not - is attempting to mask one (less detectable) monotony with another. The new "Majesty Snowbird" sounds a good deal like "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades"; "All Good Naysayers" is a ringer for "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders"; the intro to "Casimir Pulaski" is almost note-for-note a major-keyed, bpm-quickened version of "Holland." That is, Stevens is in a serious songwriting rut: he has a stock bag of (admittedly gorgeous) melodies and rhythms. These ventures toward grandiosity are a ruse - be they 24 piece choirs, extended outros, or ridiculously verbose titles - that attempt to cover up the fact that Sufjan, in the vein he's mining, has peaked.

Illinois is hands down one of the best albums of 00's, and one of 2005's top three albums, but another Illinois, like The Avalanche, will only serve to stain the image of an otherwise remarkable songwriter. So, basically, what's up next SS?


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