Sufjan Stevens loves a good concept album. Some years back, he famously declared he would make one for each of our 50 states. Much like that movie about Joaquin Phoenix, journalists decided to treat the claim as though it was real even though it was totally preposterous. The fact that Sufjan didn’t see it through says a lot less about him than it does about how the whole world is bad at math.
His new album, The Age of Adz, is loosely based on the life and work of outsider artist Royal Robertson, a troubled schizophrenic in backwoods Louisiana who communed with aliens, hated women, and pounded out a whole lot of lovely, disturbing paintings, like the one on the cover of the album:
Robertson’s work is so beautiful and playful that it’s only slightly oogie to contemplate how most of his paintings were about him killing his ex-wife in his thoughts. You look at something like that long enough, and you think, well, maybe that ex-wife was kind of a bitch. (And THEN you look at some of his magic marker drawings of T&A and realize, wait, no, definitely crazy.)
For now, let’s not worry about what motivated Sufjan's conceptual shift from topography (i.e., shared landscapes and American mythology) to interiority (i.e., the feverish nightmare mind of one lonely wackadoo). Let’s just agree that it happened.
II. Concept Vs. Content
In 2001, I attended the most terrible concert in the history of the world, a Sonic Youth show at Royal Albert Hall.
It really stung because (a) Sonic Youth was one of my favorite bands in high school and (b) at that point, I had been living in London for a while and I was looking forward to seeing an American band with special excitement. (When you’ve been abroad long enough, you get patriotic about weird stuff. It’s very creepy.)
So you can only imagine my disappointment when it became clear that Sonic Youth had no plans to play any Sonic Youth songs. Instead, the concert was a special tribute to 20th-century avant-garde musicians, which is to say it was two excruciating hours of Kim Gordon screaming Yoko Ono “songs.” It was gutting, yet my affection for Sonic Youth was such that I was ignoring primal, physiological flight-or-flight impulses to get far away from those terrible sounds as quickly as possible.
Instead, I tried to talk myself into liking it. I remember thinking, well, this is what they came from. These are the ideas that made Sonic Youth who they are! Isn’t that neat? And then I thought, ugh, on the other hand, what could be worse than a tribute to avant-garde anything? Doesn’t the very concept go against the spirit of avant-garde?
It only became clear to me that this inner-debate was entirely beside the point when some guy in the audience was like PLAY TEENAGE RIOT and I was like, for the love of god, what he said.
In art, the concept is never enough. Art that’s heavy on concept has a reputation for being pretentious because critics like to talk about framing devices (or gimmicks, if you’re being uncharitable). It's easy to forget that art has to make it past the beefy bouncers in our lizard brains before our higher faculties can be called upon to talk pretty about it.
With Sufjan Stevens, as in all good art, the concept is always secondary. The first thing you should know about The Age of Adz is that it’s bloody good.
III. Jazz Odyssey
That is not to say that I’m not sympathetic to people who get nervous when their favorite musicians decide to focus on material that is wildly divergent from whatever it was you came to love them for.
And, yeah, his October 15 performance at the Chicago Theatre was in many ways Sufjan Stevens Mark II.
I mean, there was vocoder!! There was dancing!!!
There were also many, many bleeps and bloops from special robot instruments, dueling drummers, a horn section, two back-up singers, some sort of light show that almost gave me a seizure, and an ever-changing backdrop of Royal Robertson images (mercifully light on T&A, but heavy on End Times/thought-murder themes.) I liked the album going in, but I was surprised by how dark and affecting it was in person.
Apparently, Sufjan has been interested in breaking out from the “easy listening” category for some time. And, as much as I liked Mr. Strummy-Strum (and BTW, way to go, NYT, for flashing a sense of humor for the very first time in the history of you), I am glad he wanted to rock out a little, because my lizard brain really, really likes it.
So, all of that said, WTF are we to make of indie rock’s favorite son making a concept album about outsider art? Time to talk pretty.
Around the time of the world wars, there was a huge shift in the lyric tradition. Lyric poetry, in case you care, is the kind that it is told from a personal perspective. It’s not about the faerie queen or whatever. It’s a song of the self.
The twentieth century made lyric poetry sort of problematic insofar as, you know, mass genocide and the constant threat of apocalypse sort of takes its toll on a person. It makes them sing sad songs.
That kind of dark landscape also complicated the very notion of the lyric “I”—of you, of me. The self became fragmented: difficult, complex, and (as the decades wore on) increasingly inscrutable.
The question for poets became: How does one sing about oneself under these circumstances? That crisis of identity became a crisis of form.
Which is, I suspect, part of what's going on with Sufjan Stevens. With The Age of Adz, you hardly have to do a close reading to sense the author has been through total personal apocalypse. I know it when I hear it. As they say in US Weekly: the stars are just like us.
V. The Perpetual Self
The touchstone for the conversation we’re having about 20th-century poetry is The Waste Land. For a lot of reasons, that poem was the root of an unfortunate misconception that still confuses a lot of people: that a poem must be all head or all heart. My favorite living poet, Michael Palmer, favors something called the analytic lyric, a mode that suggests that good poetry is always necessarily both. I like how he bridges the divide.
In graduate school, I wrote about one of Palmer’s poems, “Sun,” which was sort of a critique of TWL. And while Michael Palmer does not excel in talking about the heart of his work, woo boy, he's GREAT at blathering on about his own big fat head. (It remains an endless source of disappointment and delight that Palmer is just as—if not more—priggish and douchey as Eliot was. Seriously, those guys are jerks.)
But one thing Palmer said that has stuck with me is that he had a difficult time erasing the lyric beauty from his poems, even when he tried his darndest to make them sound really, really priggish and douchey (paraphrase).
For a quick and dirty illustration of the conflict one faces when singing under duress—because really, I swear to god this essay is actually about Sufjan Stevens—let me refer you to the poetry of Paul Celan, a Jew who wrote very, very beautiful horror-barf poems about losing his family in the death camps.
That’s what it means to be a poet these days: finding beauty in dark places. Even (and perhaps especially) in the bright and haunting images plucked from the mind of a schizophrenic man, say.
Sufjan Stevens has been tamping down the twee, roughing himself up a bit. Because he’s a musician who has built his career on the creative writing dictum to “write what you know,” The Age of Adz is a very disturbing record in that it’s a repudiation of self. It’s kind of dark and crazed. Sufjan Stevens Mark II has, like, a Sharpie and he’s blacking out the eyes on a picture of himself in those butterfly wings, you know?
But in the end, of course, wherever you go, there you are. It’s hard to hide in the light.
And that’s the second thing you should know about The Age of Adz: while Sufjan has gone to great lengths to erase himself from these songs, he’s still right there, if you listen. I think the “new direction” that’s got everyone in such a tiz is really pretty superficial.
VI. The Stars Are Just Like Us
All these observations have been colored by my experience of being in the very center of the very front row at Sufjan's show at the Chicago Theatre, which totally freaked me out. Before the show, I was joking with friends that I would be like this:
Thing was, people were actually like that, plus WAY WORSE. As soon as he walked on to the stage, someone unleashed their inner Steve Stark, shrieking I LOVE YOU! in the way I imagine ladies used to yell at Elvis. And do not even get me started on the man who was sobbing in his seat down the row from me. Sheer proximity had me worried that I might have some sort of serious personal problem.
I’ve never seen anything like it, and that’s including the dozen or so times I went to Tori Amos shows in high school and college, where desperate people were clutching, like, bags of their own hair to give Tori as twisted tokens of their undying affection.
Now, I can only speculate as to how creepy superfans make Sufjan Stevens feel, but I can tell you with certainty they made me feel very uncomfortable there in that fraught front row.
For me, at least, the same sensitivities that fuel my creative life are also at the root of an affliction I have come to think of as Clinical Cringe. It’s like this crippling empathy that makes it very difficult to, say, watch reality television or sit next to nightmare fans at concerts. Or, for that matter, to watch Sufjan Stevens look like he might die of embarrassment when some lady calls out that she wants to have his babies.
(I mean, maybe I’m just projecting. But don’t you think my special edition of the Stars Are Just Like Us would be kind of amazing? They scare themselves silly by googling weird diseases! They’re afraid of birds! They don’t like driving!)
Somehow this fellow has clung on to his humanity despite the kind of popularity that makes Pitchfork go all TMZ by publishing a rumor that he was breeding with his backup singer.
I’m guessing that kind of exposure can make you feel like an outsider—distancing you from everyone, really, but worst of all from yourself.
Whew, is anyone still with me? Thanks for listening, you guys. And, seriously, go buy The Age of Adz. It is so, so great.