Spotify playlist and track by track analysis
The Quack is firmly convinced that Sufjan Stevens is the greatest musician of our time, and his legacy will stand glorious, luminous, a pillar of bronze reaching the sky while the likes of Adele, Ed Sheeran and Zia will wilt away in the Oh My God - Do You Remember Those Guys sections of early 21th century music museums of the future. Given this bold claim, it is appropriate that we supply you with an in-depth analysis of some of Sufjan's music and lyrics. Some of our interpretations will be equally bold and non-diplomatic, but they are interpretations and not claims of truth. Noone knows Sufjan but Sufjan himself, and so it shall remain.
At the bottom is a link to all tracks on Spotify. Enjoy our breakdown of Sufjan's best ballads.
1] The Seer's Tower
This amazing song from 2005 album Illinoise stands out on the otherwise playful album in it's darkness and purity. On the surface what we have is a reference to the Sears Tower in Chicago, but really the title is just a sidetrack. Instead it is a complex blend of religious iconry with psychological, emotional symbols referring to Sufjan's mother and her influence over his relationship with friends and lovers. The narrator (and his siblings) constructs a psychological tower giving him exalted feelings of power and clear sightedness, and he does this for "Emanuel"(=God With Us) meaning to achieve a presence of God in his life and enable love for his fellows. This can be seen as a constant struggle to go beyond oneself, to construct a sense of worthiness and confidence. But ultimately, like with the bold tower of Babel bringing a destructive response from God, this Seer's Tower incites a different icon to appear, "The Emanuel of Mothers", the powerful remnants of his abusive mother acting as a destructive force on Sufjan's entire being. In the two last lines we understand the betrayal felt when his mother moved away and got lost in schizophrenia and substance abuse, and how it even to this day makes him isolated and unable to relate to others. Heavy, to say the least.
2] John, My Beloved
In this gem from 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan uses the intimacy between Jesus and his beloved disciple John to describe the contrast between his deep inner desire for pure love with another man and the shallow and insecure first meetings with a gay lover in the modern world. Over and over, Sufjan apologises for his behaviour, being deep and troubled and unable to just enjoy a bit of casual sex in New York like everyone else. There's also a sense of time wasting, why bother trying to connect deeply with someone who just isn't really that interested in you? Ultimately, the repeated line in the chorus "There's only a shadow of me, in a matter of speaking I'm dead" sheds light on how his behaviour is a result of depression, and how the fossils of memories and past pains destroy his every attempt for happiness. This is made clear in the references to Painted Hills and the John Day fossil beds in Oregon, which becomes the symbolic description of Sufjan's state after visiting his mother's deathbed in Oregon. By referring to an actual place, Sufjan knits together both the name John, the bed and the fossils of the past. This is in symbolism the geographic place where Sufjan is when the events unfold. He has been buried underground with his memories while his lover is light and off to chase the sun, not yet having reached the deeper knowledge of how life works with its inevitable downs. Sufjan sees clearly how they can never be together, and yet he can't give this thought of pure love up, as one sided as it may be. It is eternal and written into his very being. Perhaps that is how we should see the arrangement, the constant D-note going through the entire song on that faded, almost broken sounding electric piano. The relentless humming of a broken heart. Even though John leaves, Sufjan's love is until death.
From 2003 album Michigan, the track Holland is less complex than most of Sufjan's ballads, but it nevertheless shows off his great songwriting skills. Based on a repeated, jazz inspired chord progression and semi-improvised arrangements for guitar and piano, this is one of his musically most beautiful tracks ever. With only a couple of lines of lyrics we need to take a deeper look at the music. The vocal lines depart from the ground note ascending upwards to the fifth. There they fade away as the chords shift creating a minor on the forth, or a major 7th on the semi-note above the ground note, then falling into a sus-chord on the fifth. If this makes no sense to you at all, what Sufjan does is create a hesitation in the major key of the song and a kind of stumbling questioning of the happy feeling. This hesitation returns at the end of each line only to disappear again and the chords return to "normal". In the lyrics we find a couple planning a holiday to the beach at Holland, Michigan, but there's an uncertainty if they will ever go there, or if it will solve their problems. It's a dream to sooth them, and yet even as a dream it seems aloof. What makes me think the song is not about the economic depression of Michigan per se is Sufjan's familiar feelings of not handling being in love and his fears of going crazy. These emotions are what colours the dream and makes it unlikely and hesitant. At the end an English Horn comes in and gives a fairytale, folk music feel to the music, voicing something of a Midsummer Night's Dream comment to the whole scene. With the vocals gone, lending the major/minor quality of the song more open, the clear minor melody of the horn crushes the dream entirely. Masterful, dense work with so precious little material.
4] To Be Alone With You
In a much more subtle way than with John, My Beloved, this song from 2004 album Seven Swans is perhaps Steven's first piece of art to conjoin the religious love of Christ with the purest form of love between two males. This subtlety has led to endless arguments between people who think the song is either about Christ or all about the Gay. Ironically no one seems to have been able to put two and two together to realise it is indeed about both things at once. With prominent support from extended chords and entangled harmonies the vocal lines are fairly simple. While the second verse is so clearly about Jesus, the first verse and the last line in particular are not, leaving any limited interpretation of this song permanently flawed. Sufjan in the first verse experiences a pure love for someone, this tremendous, self-annihilating love which is clearly not reciprocated, given the apparent distance. He then turns to Jesus and sees the corresponding love coming from him, from his entire life and actions of the gospel. In fact it is so much that Sufjan's own love shrinks in comparison. Where Sufjan's love just repeats itself into desire, Jesus gives more of himself. In the final line it is revealed that his desire is for a man. The essence of the song however is quite devoid of gender. Sufjan is left with the final conclusion that his love isn't quite so pure as he might have thought and that he has never been loved by another man in the purest way, and may never be. A fragile and lonely moment which is strongly held up by the musical arrangement.
5] John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
One of Sufjan's best known songs and sporting an almost iconic status. The lyrics of this 2005 song are very straightforward and leave little to interpretation. What we have is a description of a famous serial killer, what might have made him and what he ended up being. The odd element here is of course the finale, where Sufjan compares himself to this monster, likening his facade and jolly outer appearance to his own. This thought leaves the music crashing into uncertainty after 3 minutes of a repetative falling chord progression. This moment catches most people's ear, but my favourite moment is the one in the middle where Sufjan loses it for a moment in an "Oh my God" that slowly falls down into a shocking "Are you one of them?", likening the listener with one of the serial killer's victims. These two daring moves put together and Stevens has skilfully drawn both himself and the listener into this horrible drama leaving everyone lost in the ominous ending notes and breaths.
6] All Of Me Wants All Of You
Another true gem from 2015's Carrie and Lowell, this again has fans grasping for clues of its meaning. The reason is probably that it is expected to be about his mother, as that is the theme for the album, or about Jesus. Instead we are left with references to masturbation and being in bed with a man who looks like Poseidon. He is even named Manelich. Now here of course we can't know for sure whether it's someone's actual name or just an internet chat room username alluding to being "manly". The only thing that is clear is that it is not a reference to a 120 year old spanish play, a ridiculous theory put out by some christian parts of Sufjan's following. As we accept the fact that Sufjan is having gay sex once and for all, we can delve deeper into what this song is actually about. At the centre of it all is the conflict between the lines "All of me thinks less of you" and "All of me wants all of you". How can they both be true?
The key here is given in the "oh oh oh"s present all through the song. In the first verse Sufjan is ridiculing himself, singing them just like a boohoo, portraying himself as a small child who wants the candy after he has eaten it. Also, there are two clear scenes: one in bed with Manelich(verses) and one a flashback scene on top of a mountain in Oregon(chorus). My take on this is that the chorus refers to a trip with his mother, where he had a revelation that she was now so distant she wasn't actually there anymore. Now, in bed with Manelich, their relationship, or meeting, is so shallow and unromantic that Sufjan is forced to see himself in the same light, he is just an empty outline. "Revelation may come true", the chorus then concludes. Sufjan's impression of his mother's emptiness has come true, in himself. The title All Of Me Wants All Of You on repeat which concludes the song is in this light understandable. Sufjan is left empty, and a void like that must be filled. But it is not a spiritual need to be filled with love, it is a child's Want, hence the problem in the first place. (more on Poseidon and the invisibility cloak of Hades in "The Only Thing" below.)
So much for the lyrics. On the musical side of things we have a simple E-minor based song with no extended chords worth mentioning or out-of-scale notes to be heard. An empty outline of sorts. What we do have is melodic tension. The rising melody of the chorus, clearly relating to the lyric's climbing of the mountain Spencer's Butte, remains fixed in E-minor even as the chords climb up to B-minor, generating a very strong dissonans and tension which makes the song. In all its simplicity, this song can change your impression of Sufjan Stevens both as a person and artist. In this way it cleverly communicates his own revelation about himself.
7] Seven Swans
This mega ballad from the 2004 album with the same name comes off as a piece of "genuine" folk, but underneath the banjo strings hides a very Radiohead-esque modern indie-ballad. The key cleverly switches from major to minor and the notes have a slowly falling chromatic quality, which is just to be expected when taking influences from late 90s Beatles-inspired art rock. Unlike that genre though and songs like Street Spirit or Sail to The Moon, Sufjan takes the approach of the rest of the album, delivering a naked, almost claustrophobic production, in fact the most fragile moment on a very fragile album. Even when the track explodes it sticks with a standup piano in mono, simple bass and lead guitar, simply mixed drums and vocals with natural reverb. The reason for making this monumental track so sparse and folksy is very interesting. One might deem it unlikely that someone playing banjo in a barn out in the countryside would ever power up the art school complexities which this track holds, but that is exactly the point. With Seven Swans Sufjan describes some of the most complex lines of reasoning we can expect in the classic, christian countryside where this album has it's setting: the introvert, overstimulated madness of eschatology and mysticism. Even though it is tempting to interpret this song in a psychologial way, given the references to the burned father and the distant mother, the very essence of it is strikingly emotional and religious.
Starting out in a real setting, waking up in the middle of the night from a fire, Sufjan paints a still image, a hypnotised feeling. When he sees the swans flying over the scene he is inspired to hope, seemingly in a moment of great despair. In the second verse reality fades and symbolic fantasy takes its place. There might be a reference here to Sufjan's mother's illness and moving away. Regardless of the exact meaning of this verse though, it is exceedingly clear that we are dealing with a state of despair which triggers a vision of the divine. In the finale these visions come into full bloom. The narrator seems broken down while painting a new picture; the active God who will set you right with Providence and Fate. There is no escape. Atheists will find the last lines of text disturbing, and in a way they are right. The picture of this aggressive deity Sufjan paints has its roots in mysticism and is usually explained by the infinite love which God has for Man as the main motivator. However, in Seven Swans there is no love, no patience, no actual ascension to heaven. Instead the track conveys feelings of desperation, paranoia and the kind of solemnity and deep emotions resulting from intense praying.
It is quite remarkable how this song, although being almost nonsensical in its lyrics, paints such a clear picture of a state of mind. I wouldn't hold it against Sufjan if he has ever experienced this state of mysticistic confusion, but during the 2006 world tour he notoriously gave lengthy, trivial explanations to the meaning of the song's lyrics, and produced different explanations at different gigs, almost making fun of the song. ...which makes me conclude he did mean it as a serious song when it was written.
8] Concerning the UFO sightings near Highland, Illinois
As Émile Zola once wrote on painting; "A work of art is a corner of the world seen through a temperament". On 2005 album Illinoise Sufjan delves into different stories from the state which are not his own and projects them on a screen for us to see, through his own mind. This song describes the appearance of a huge triangular object in the air above several smaller towns in southern Illinois on January 5 2000. With three strong white lights in its corners, and appearing just five days after the millennial celebrations, Sufjan easily gives the event a mystical angle. But that's not all. In only ten lines of text Sufjan breaks down the whole UFO phenomenon. We have the haunting fear of something alien which comes to haunt us, perhaps even kill us. We have the promise of a greater intelligence coming to help us. We have the lure of excitement with police cars speeding through the quiet landscape at night chasing the mystery. We have the awe of the mystery itself leaving us wanting more. Intriguingly, the G-major song ends in a beautiful A-major, having modulated up a 5th into the D-major key. Sufjan is implying that the UFO sightings are uplifting and inspiring to us, leaving us in a different place from where we started out.
9] Futile Devices
As much as I loathe the straightwashing of Sufjan's songs I also loathe the gaywashing, and you shall see none of it here. Although it contains him singing the phrases "I loooove you" and "I think of you as a brother", this is not a gay song. This is actually one of the rather few songs where I really think Sufjan sings from another person's perspective. Why? Well, if you have read some of the rather rare interviews he has given which are actually about his person, you will know one thing; Sufjan crochets, a lot. He also plays the guitar, in case you didn't know that already. This beautiful song is a description, or perhaps a lamenting fantasy about the point of view of someone who has come to visit him and slept on his coach, several times, and without saying he, or she(!) loves him. In the most basic way. The way that Sufjan so dearly covets, the pure way, seeing him like a brother. Listening to this song a hundred time, I actually more and more tend to think it's a member of his family. And yet it's such a remarkable song most listeners expect more passion than that. But isn't that the point? There is no passion there at all, instead it's all hidden underneath the surface. One of his very best songs for sure.
10] The Only Thing
From 2015's Carrie & Lowell, this is arguably one of Sufjan's most desperate and lonely songs ever. The first line of the text establishes what this is about, the odd things that keep him from killing himself. He then makes a reference to the legend of Medusa, on the surface a blunt reference to his mother. Actually it is rather clever, although somewhat graphic. Medusa was a tragic figure who once was a normal woman but punished by Athena for sleeping with Poseidon (yes, just like Sufjan sees himself doing in All of Me Wants All of You!). Also, in order to kill Medusa, Perseus can't look into Medusa's eyes, instead using a mirrored surface of a stone. Other reviewers have noted how in all the pictures of Sufjan's mother on the cover we never see her eyes. In fact, in one of them we see Lowell taking the photo through a mirror. In killing Medusa, the great flying horse-hero Pegasus is born, the child of Medusa and Poseidon, trapped in her blood. Also relevant here is that Perseus uses the cloak of Hades, death's cloak, in order to escape unharmed after his deed.
Now all this can seem a bit much to take in, but to break it down for you: Sufjan sees his mother as Medusa, a once normal person who was afflicted with some curse turning here into a monster. He sees himself as Pegasus, her son trapped in incompletion, waiting to be set free by the death of his mother. This is what should have happened. Instead Sufjan finds he is wearing the veil of Hades, like Perseus, and is more like the figure who killed Medusa than the son who is set free. The chorus describes then how he is caught in every way seeing his mother, who should not be gazed upon, because it will kill him. The line "I want to save you from your sorrows" further shows how he feels the killing of Medusa was unjust and that his mother now being dead is beyond saving. The feeling of relief he had expected at her death after all the pain she had caused has not arrived, instead a sense of guilt, emptiness and regret.
What the song essentially is about, The Only Thing, is Sufjan tracing the things keeping him alive, be it a bible quote sent to him by a friend, drawing, silence, touristing the caves off the Oregon coast. Seeing his mother in everything will kill him. In the final verse we see that Sufjan, instead of still aiming to be this Pegasus flying hero, adopts a more grown up stance to life. He lets go of his dream and submits to reason. The only thing that is left.
With this I conclude my analysis of Sufjan Stevens music for now. Enjoy this playlist, which also contains nine other essential Sufjan ballads.