Sufjan Stevens

So on a bit of a whim I downloaded “dark was the night”, the latest installment of the ‘red hot’ compilations. This installments brings together the current batch of indie/folk artists performing cover songs.

The one song that really stands out for me is ‘you are the blood’ interpreted by Sufjan Stevens. Now I have heard of him and kinda know some of his stuff (Illinois) but I read on Pitchforkmedia that his interpretation was more in his pre-indie stardom style (“Stevens teams a more cacophonous version of his traditional arsenal of horns and choral vocals with the sort of minimalist electronics he leaned more heavily on in the days before he earned indie-level fame”).

For those who are familiar with his work - what album(s) should I look into for similar style songs? It’s especially the bombastic horn-section of the song that I like…

If you like the bombastic horns, check out his album Illinois, particularly the songs “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” and “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” That album also contains one of the prettiest, saddest songs ever: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

The Seven Swans is another good one – I’m very partial to “The Dress Looks Nice on You” and “In the Devil’s Territory”.

(I used to have his album, Michigan, which I’ve since lost so I can’t give you any specific recommendations, but it’s also very good. Basically, you can’t go wrong with Sufjan. ETA: Wait, “Say Yes! to M!ch!gan!” and “Oh Detroit Lift Up Your Weary Head!” have bright horns.)

I wouldn’t say that. I’d call that a dark and powerful song. The Predatory Wasp of the Pallisades and Casimir Pulaski Day both fit far more snuggly into the “pretty, sad” category than that one, in my opinion.

Future Londonite, I can’t answer your specific question, but Illinois is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my life, and I’m not really into indie rock. Listen to that album from start to finish, in one sitting, if you haven’t already. After that, I’d say Michigan and Seven Swans were both pretty good, and nothing else I’ve heard of his has really caught my ear. I wish he’d hurry up and do another state already, if he’s going to.

*John Wayne Gacy, Jr. *is, well upsetting and unsettling at the very least.

And there’s a bit of controversy as to just what the heck Stevens means in the end with “And in my best behavior I am really just like him Look beneath the floorboards For the secrets I have hid.”

As poetic comparisons go, comparing yourself to a serial child-rapist/murderer, and your secrets to mutilated bodies is quite a doozy.

Some people suspect that it’s sort of a nod to Christian theology… but if so, it’s probably about the least sympathetic light to present that particular idea (i.e. that because you fantasized about Jenna Jameson once, that you’re just as bad and unredeemable as a man who kidnapped, brutalized, and slaughtered children)

Illinois has lots of pretty awesome songs though. And Michigan has “For the Widows…(etc…)” which is just about one of my favorite songs ever.

I’m one of those who suspects this–indeed, to me it doesn’t feel like a suspicion but rather almost just a plain reading of the text–and I am a Christian but this line makes me like the song even less than I would have otherwise. It seems like a really boneheaded thing to say.

As for pretty+sad songs on Illinoise, I’d say the one about the girlfriend-ish friend dying of cancer fits the bill. And it’s one of my favorites on the album. And it deals with Christian themes (when it does) in what seems to me to be a far less boneheaded way. :stuck_out_tongue:

Upon researching, I see this is the song Casimir Pulaski mentioned above. Go look up the words, even without the music they are (it seems to me) truly moving.

Heavy on the theism though. But I suspect even those who don’t swing that way can read themselves into the song.

Here is how the song tells us that the girl has died (bit of grammar awk but its lyrics not poetry…):

:eek::frowning: right?


ETA hmmm well maybe the music is necessary for that moment… ah well I’ll leave it up.

Thanks for the suggestions - it was the comment by Pitchforkmedia that this song (You are the blood) was more of a throwback to his pre-indie fame that made me think ‘Illinois’ might not be the best start…now I will give it a try though

I think the key in what they were refering to as being before his indie-darling status is: “minimalist electronics”. Which is a reference to his album Enjoy Your Rabbit. A great album, but not at all what you’re looking for… so I agree with the sugggestion to give Illinois a listen. You might also enjoy some of The Avalanche, which is made up of extra material that didn’t make it to onto Illinois. Though that album isn’t anywhere near as good, unsurprisingly.

John Wayne Gacy, Jr. is one of those rare, stop-you-in-your-tracks at the first listen songs that come close to absolute perfection. I really don’t think I’ve heard anything more affecting or haunting since Nick Drake.

IMO it’s a faultless interweaving of subject, lyrics, vocal performance, instrumentation and tune. (Actually, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think it’s actually better than anything Nick Drake ever did. Did I really say that?!)

5 albums from 2003-2006, isn’t it time we got one more?

I love this song, particular the very end (right after the part you quoted).

In fact both this and John Wayne Gacy take familiar Christian ideas and extend them to their inevitable conclusions. “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away” includes taking your young love, as well as everything else you might care about. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” means, in its literal interpretation, that Sufjan’s sins really are identical in God’s eyes to John Wayne Gacy’s. I tend to believe that Sufjan understands and is highlighting the uncomfortableness of these ideas, not necessarily endorsing them (even though I understand he is a devout Christian).

Bit of a hijack but:

No, no, no, no, no.




This kind of thinking trivializes the suffering of victims of people like Gacy.

Putting it less emotionally, here’s a logical point. It is possible to “fall short of the glory of God” without at the same time being utterly despicable and horrendously evil. (As a biblical example, take the angels. They are supposed to be very, very good, and yet they are not supposed to be as “glorious” as God is supposed to be.) And since this is possibe, it does not follow from the fact that one has sinned that one is as despicably evil as John Wayne Gacy.


I agree completely, and suspect that Stevens would as well. But surely you will allow that the standard boilerplate Sunday School teaching (at least as I received it) is that any sin is enough to eternal separate us from God and that every man sins. This teaching is what Stevens is highlighting, I believe. Whether he believes it literally or not I’m in no position to say (and I clearly don’t, having given up my Southern Baptist upbringing some time ago). But there are people that do.

At a less religious level Stevens is also playing with the idea that we all have things in our past that we bury under the floorboards (metaphorically) and that are potential sources of shame and horror.

I’m not sure what the point is of discussing what Stevens “really believes.” The songs themselves present theological views in their narrators’ voices, and in the case of the Gacy song, the view expressed is repugnant.

I haven’t seen any reason to think it’s not Stevens’ view, but maybe I’m wrong about that. It doesn’t matter–I’m criticizing the view expressed, whoever is expressing it.


Who knows wtf he was talking about. He’s also not gay but he talks about wearing leg warmers and kissing/being in love with a guy in another song. Sufjan is extremely open and experimental as an artist. He might have been feeling something in the moment that he wrote that that he doesn’t feel anymore. He might’ve had a moment of extreme empathy. He might’ve been saying that JWG only does what he knows how to do best and he (Sufjan Stevens) also only does what he knows how to do best. We can speculate all day.

I do distinctly remember one of the few times I went to Sunday School being taught that “just thinking about stealing a candy bar is exactly as bad as murdering a thousand people in God’s eyes.” Even as a kid I thought that was pretty fucked up.


Only slightly more fucked up than “God loves you and if your childhood sweetheart dies horribly from bone cancer it’s OK because God gave her to you so he can take her away”.

At least that could give you some comfort, I guess. The former is just an attempt at mind control.

As an atheist myself, Sufjan is one of those Christian musicians I have utterly no problem with, because he lyrics dealing with those themes seem to reflect genuine, thoughtful (even doubtful) and very human emotions about issues of faith, as opposed to many Christian acts whose lyrics come across as mere jingles for a product they are selling. I may not believe what Sufjan believes, but I can empathize and appreciate the things he’s describing.

The lyrics of Pulanski are a pretty good example:

That last line is just a HEARTBREAKING ending to the song, which is just touching and beautiful to begin with. The fact that I don’t believe and he does doesn’t take anything away from appreciating those very conflicted and powerful feelings the character in the song is struggling with.

I have to note my amusement that this thread started on Casimir Pulaski Day (first Monday of March).

The matter-of-fact bleakness of…

…is my “favorite” bit in the song.

That’s the bastard who hijacked my account. All those damn 30 track albums (with 30 second tracks) managed to get him into my top 8 bands, even though I swear I never listened to him that much.

I saw him open for John Vanderslice in 2005, before I even knew who he was. It wasn’t until after I listened to Illinois a couple times that I realized that I’ve heard some of these songs live, and then I went back and checked the JV review I wrote on my Livejournal which mentioned Sufjan as the opening act, and then my head exploded.

This is from an interview:

“Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, I think precisely because the narrator is so matter-of-fact about his disillusionment.