Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sufjan: love him, hate him, fight him, admire him

Some days I feel like the worst hipster ever, not that I am really trying to be a hipster, but having just looked up the definition of "hipster" in the Urban Dictionary, I pretty much am one. There is one core reason for my sense of detachment from the hipster movement at large, and that would be my relationship with Indie/Hipster darling Sufjan Stevens.
I have no idea how/when Stevens came on the scene. I can't remember who introduced me to him, either; which is most unusual. The first association I have with his music, however, are his two state albums Illinois and Michigan. My first response was "I can't believe he used midi oboe. This sounds terrible!" Then whoever it was that introduced me to this new soundscape informed me that he plays all his own instruments. For just a moment, that made me feel better, because I guess oboe is hard to play and sound good. Then I thought "This still sounds terrible!" His song "Chicago" from Illinois is referenced in a Snow Patrol song that I love. And people I know and love and who generally have impeccable taste love his music, but I just couldn't understand.
For a long time I would pretend to like Sufjan whenever he was being discussed, and I would coo and giggle over the state albums and be excited when there was talk of a new album, but when it was released, I would never do anything to procure a copy. I was surprised to eventually learn that one of my favorite David Crowder songs (for it's authentic approach to God's seeming absence) was originally a Sufjan tune off Michigan ("Oh God Where are you now? ...) and this seemed to give a little bit more legitimacy to his efforts, but I was still undecided. Then I heard part of his Christmas box-set and our relationship, Sufjan's music and mine, changed. First, I heard some new friends playing some of these new arrangements of Christmas classics and I was instantly charmed. They were inventive and innocent and difficult to sing along with because they were nothing like the originals but above all they were ... beautiful. I was so pleased when I learned they were actually Stevens' arrangements because now I actually did have an affection to back up my words with my friends. There's something about the new eyes with which Stevens sees these classics that I can understand. Music that comes straight from his brain, I cannot seem to grasp - we have no common ground in the functioning of our minds/understanding of music. But if the music comes from someone else's brain and Stevens reinterprets or reinvents it, I love it - we now have common ground.
The more investigation I have done into his music, the more messy my relationship with Stevens' has become. For the most part I think I can say I admire him. I don't think everything he does is gold or even a diamond in the rough. I feel okay saying this. I feel right and honest, and not the least bit dirty about it.
Even as I have been writing this post and thinking about this complicated relationship, I have been streaming his albums on Spotify and find this love/hate/admire relationship to be consistent. I seem to like his more recent work better, perhaps he has been practicing his oboe, or abandoned it completely and stuck with some different instrumentation choices. I have been impressed with the Shostakovich-like string part in the eleventh minute (that's right, the eleventh minute) of the original version of "All Delighted People" from his 2010 All Delighted People EP and I've heard references to classic Simon & Garfunkel in some of his lyrics. The man knows quality, clearly. Regardless of how I feel about his music-making, I have to respect his taste and his independence. His style is definitive and unique. You always know a Sufjan Stevens record and even his record label Asthmatic Kitty has a certain vibe to all its artists.
Here's the bottom line: I do not love the music of Sufjan Stevens, but I don't hate it either. That sounds like it could be the worst thing you could say to an artist. But it's certainly not a lack of reaction in this case either. I am not apathetic by any means. I merely relate to him as an artist in a deeply complicated and individual way. I have been in a continual struggle with my true response to Stevens until this point and I think the struggle ends here: I respect and admire him and what he does. I will probably break down and buy all of his albums at one point or another because they should be on every self-respecting hipster's iPod, but I will probably frequently skip over them and rarely be in the mood for them. Every now and again, though, they will hit the spot.
Except the Christmas albums, those will become a Christmas tradition in my house.
Speaking of Christmas, I am so ready for it to be here! Anyone else? Think it's too early to go caroling? Next July, I am going to get a group together to go Christmas-in-July caroling. Who's in?

1 comment:

amyrose said...

I totally wanted to go caroling tonight. I am definitely in the mood for Christmas already. Not to say that I want to see decorations in the stores or anything, but I will admit to having already bought a few Christmas presents. The two are totally different things.