Artist Profile: Sufjan Stevens

A concert by Sufjan Stevens is as likely to be a somber, reflective affair as it is to be punctuated by rainbow angel wings and trucker hats. With a musical style that ranges from electronica to folk to live covers of Drake’s hit song “Hotline Bling,” the Brooklyn-based musician continues to endear himself to music critics with his painfully honest combination of religious trauma, pining, and American mysticism. Currently most known for his contributions to the 2017 romantic drama Call Me By Your Name, Sufjan got his start at Hope College in his home state of Michigan, where he performed with the band Marzuki. From there he moved to New York and worked as a children’s book author, releasing several albums during that period. These include the banjo-heavy, biblical Seven Swans in 2004, and the first of his Fifty States Project, Michigan, in 2003. An album so earnest it prompted Pitchfork to up their rating from a 7.5 to an 8.5 and assign it the title of best new music, Michigan significantly furthered his career. The project’s intimate look into both the declining state’s working class and natural beauty combines details from Stevens’ own youth with sweeping orchestration. 

Stevens continued these themes with his 2005 album Illinois, which features songs ranging from a mournful ballad for the victims of John Wayne Gacy to recollections of his first love at a Methodist summer camp. In the following years, Stevens worked on several projects including numerous collaborations, a classical ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and a two-hour Christmas album. However, his next studio album was The Age of Adz. Released in 2010, the album opens with the sobering track “Futile Devices,” and is followed by songs largely featuring frantic percussion and static laid under, and sometimes over, Stevens’ characteristic layered vocals and orchestration. The album concludes with the 25-minute song “Impossible Soul,” a feverish and often pleading track that details Stevens’ struggles with an incredibly painful viral infection. Around this time, Stevens continued to release collaborations as well as a nearly three-hours long Christmas album. 

In 2015, Stevens released Carrie and Lowell following the death of his often absent mother Carrie. Mainly utilizing vocals, guitar, and piano, the project is a stark contrast to his past albums. It details Stevens’ grieving process, mixing in memories of summers in Oregon with Carrie’s ex-husband Lowell, who remains a father figure to Stevens and who started the record label Asmathic Kitty with him. The album’s stripped-down instrumentals and heavy biblical themes are reminiscent of Seven Swans, but contain an intimacy that his 2004 work did not. Carrie and Lowell was followed by a live album as well as a collection of unreleased songs and demos.

Despite widespread demand for a sequel to Carrie and Lowell, Stevens has stated a hesitancy to release one. His subsequent releases have thus strayed into other sounds. In 2017, he recorded Planetarium, a mystically orchestral collaboration, and, in March of this year, he released Aporia with his stepfather Lowell Brahms. Aporia is a 42-minute jam album with one lyrical track. Stevens most recently released his newest album The Ascension on September 25th. In the first single “America,” he turns his gaze not within but onto his country. With The Ascension, Stevens is once again trying something new and seeking to make sense of the world through word and song.

Written by: Natalie Hardin