Folk balladeer explores electronica

Sufjan Stevens has been releasing electronic and folk music on the Asthmatic Kitty label since 2000, but is most well known for his 2005 album Illinois, which is often listed as one of the best albums of the decade.

His songs are marked by whimsical storytelling mixed with dramatic and eclectic musical arrangements. He plays everything from banjo to oboe on Illinois, and manages to pack irregular time signatures, classical orchestration, choirs, and obscure biblical references together into a unique acoustic folk sound that is widely accessible and profoundly moving. His brain seems packed full of musical ideas constantly spilling out, sometimes into the same song. Luckily, his melodies are simple and catchy enough that his bells and whistles do not typically get in the way of the song.

Since 2005, Stevens has released a charming collection of Christmas carols and original Christmas songs, and delved more deeply into symphonic writing with an award-winning orchestral film project called The BQE, before releasing two projects this year: the All Delighted People EP and The Age of Adz.

All Delighted People isn’t a huge stylistic stretch from Illinois but does move into more experimental songwriting. He borrows lines from Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and interweaves them into the title track. The result is a rich expression of faith and doubt. The album’s orchestration is more dramatic, and the melodies less simple and catchy, meaning the songs require more investment from the listener. Similarly, the lyrical content is harder to grasp, partly because this album is missing some of the straightforward narratives from his past writing.

This seems a shame because it’s a real treat when he’s able to interweave rich substance with clear storytelling, especially when exploring issues of faith Christian artists rarely touch. His take on the problems of evil and suffering in songs like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” makes them stand out as examples of personally moving and theologically important songs.

Electronica and ambition

The Age of Adz album mixes Stevens’ earlier interest in electronica with the ambition of his more recent work. It opens with the beautifully delicate “Futile Devices” before breaking into a cacophony of electronic noises. These noises continue on and off for the rest of the album, which is a startling departure from his recent albums, but they work particularly well in the introductory second track “Too Much,” a catchy 7/8 romp.

Stevens’ songwriting retains his unique voice, and his orchestral/choral arrangements are also still there in places, but most of the surrounding noises are now made by drum machines and synthesizers instead of banjos and violins.

The overall sound of this album is a daring yet logical musical step for Stevens, though it may alienate fans who are interested primarily in his earlier folk sounds. A strong argument can be made that his busy arrangements – which bring joy and life out of tin whistles and recorders – can be a little overwhelming when orchestrated with a million electronic sounds. Likewise, his whispery voice is better suited to his unique “folk-baroque” style than electronica. For those who are altogether new to his music, it would be best to check out an earlier album like Illinois first.

However, it’s hardly fair to expect an artist, particularly one as monumental as Sufjan Stevens, to keep producing the same material over again. His fans must therefore face a decision: to abandon him or put in the effort to appreciate his new music and grow with him.

Jeremy Penner is worship pastor at Portage Avenue Church, Winnipeg.

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