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Epth is a state of mind, not a place. Reading this will give you a virtual drivers license in that state, but you'll still need to be 21 to purchase alcohol. And you can't get any there anyway, so stop asking.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Sufjan Stevens in Concert with Giant Wings

Who: Sufjan Stevens (w/ band)

Where: Lakewood Theater, Dallas, TX, USA

When: Wed, Sept. 13


I know music is supposed to be a matter of subjective taste, but I just can’t imagine how anyone could dislike Sufjan Stevens. He’s wholly unique in the world of music (don’t think so? I’ll explain why in a sec…), he’s almost criminally talented, he melds genres like a Vulcan melds minds, he’s unassuming, his songs are beautiful and amazing, and he has the stated goal of making an album for each U.S. state. How could you not like that?

To put it another way: Unless you’re one of those people who absolutely only listens to a particular genre of music (in which case you probably don’t know what “genre” means, but will gladly put a boot (country), cap (rap), or kitana (death metal) in my a__ if I point that out), you have no excuse for not liking Sufjan. Even if you can’t stand “indie” rock, which Sufjan barely even qualifies as anyway, you can at least recognize the man’s talent. He plays semi-orchestral indie pop-rock with heavy use of a banjo. And it’s awesome. The only band I can think of that’s doing anywhere near what he does right now is the Polyphonic Spree, but they’re far more trippy and creepy. Well, ok, at least more trippy.

But music isn’t the thing that makes Mr. Stevens “wholly unique,” as I asserted 2 paragraphs ago. His lyrics are the wholly unique thing, and I don’t just mean the “basing an album around a state” thing, or the fact that he makes concept albums. Both of those things have been done before and will be done again[1]. What Sufjan does with his lyrics constantly amazes me. First of all, nearly every song of his relates to a Christian theme in some way, no matter what event or place it’s about. And this Christian theme is Out There for all to see, but non- and even anti-Christian fans don’t seem to notice or mind. It’s almost like his songs are coded, or coated, in a sad story or clever conceit, and only those with “ears to hear” can decode or decoat them to find the meaning. Take, for example, the song “Chicago,” off the Illinois album. It’s arguably the most popular song off his most popular album, and its lyrics start out as a story:

I fell in love again
all things go, all things go
drove to Chicago
all things know, all things know
we sold our clothes to the state
I don't mind, I don't mind
I made a lot of mistakes
in my mind, in my mind

He immediately sucks you in with the plight of a poor young man (or boy?) driving to the big city of Chicago. But what’s this “I made a lot of mistakes” part? Typical indie navel-gazing regret? Nope. Check it out:


you came to take us
all things go, all things go
to recreate us
all things grow, all things grow
we had our mindset
all things know, all things know
you had to find it
all things go, all things go

Now, is he talking about the city of Chicago or something else? Or something Else? Is this song even about Chicago at all? Well, maybe the “go” part of Chicago. But the next verse is about a totally different city:

I drove to New York
in the van, with my friend
we slept in parking lots
I don't mind, I don't mind
I was in love with the place
in my mind, in my mind
I made a lot of mistakes
in my mind, in my mind

Same thing, different city. Mr. Stevens keeps presenting these romanticized versions of poor trips to big cities, then torpedoing them with “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my mind.” Let’s look at that chorus again:

you came to take us
all things go, all things go
to recreate us
all things grow, all things grow
we had our mindset
all things know, all things know
you had to find it
all things go, all things go

Trust me – on at least one level, he’s talking about Jesus. I’d provide the relevant Bible verses, but suffice it to say that Jesus coming to “take us, recreate us, and finding our mindset and changing it” it entirely and beautifully Biblical. It’s just coded and coated in the story and the catchy “all things go” repeated phrase. I don’t know if the story is an actual thing that happened to him, or if it’s just from some fictional person’s point of view, but see what happens next (in the emotional climax of the song):

if I was crying
in the van, with my friend
it was for freedom
from myself and from the land
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes

Why is he crying? He’s made a lot of mistakes, but he is free from them. He realized this while traveling cross-country in a van, and felt truly free because he’s been taken and recreated by the one who found him.

And “Chicago” is far from the only song that’s like this, with the Christianity out front for anybody to see. Take the brutal ballad “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” with its self-damning ending, or the apocalyptic direct-from-Revelation-to-you actions of “Emmanuel of mothers” in “The Seer’s Tower.” Both of those songs conjure images of Illinois icons, but their actual meaning involves so much more. Plus, they sound cool coming from the band and his falsetto voice.

That’s not to say that all his songs have a specifically Christian message, or that he even can be considered a Christian artist[2]. The secular music press has embraced him, and not even begrudgingly. It’s like nobody notices the guy is a Christian, or if they do, they just don’t care. I mean, he released “Seven Swans” (a specifically Christian album) in 2004 and nobody batted an eye. All but the most rabid anti-Christians just saw it as another Sufjan record. How insane is that? Usually when an artist is a Christian that’s the only thing reviewers can talk about -- look at how Sixpence None the Richer had to practically perform a Peter-like renunciation of Christ to get people to ask them about their music. But thanks to Mr. Stevens strangely oblique yet positively brilliant lyrics, he gets to be a Christian and an artist. How Wholly Unique.

It helps that the stories in Sufjan’s songs are so universal and personal. They’re mostly told in first person, and most of them involve divorce or loneliness or job loss or death or betrayal or unrequited love or other emotionally wrenching things. Now, he’ll also record a joyful song on you, so watch out – but all of his songs involve some sort of real human emotion that’s expressed in a way you don’t expect, even if you’ve heard a bunch of Sufjan’s stuff before. The naked emotion, whether it be joyful or fearful or whatever, makes the songs resonate with people. It makes the songs intimate. And that intimacy covers over whatever religious problems people might have with them.


Not surprisingly, the Lakewood Theater resides in the Lakewood section[3] of Dallas, just south and west of White Rock Lake on the city’s near east side. That won’t mean anything to a non-Dallasian, but the important thing to remember about Lakewood is that it’s filled to the brim with good-looking white people, which makes it the perfect place to hold a Sufjan Stevens concert. I wrote more about this as it was happening, but let me summarize Sufjan’s demo, at least in Dallas: 99% white, 90% young (18-25), 80% attractive, and maybe 50% cognizant and approving of the artist’s Christianity[4].

We were seated in the first row in the back part of the balcony, pretty dang good seats for getting there seemingly after everybody else. The row in front of us was in the walkway, and those people had a hard time seeing. When Sufjan came out, everybody stood up and clapped, then sat down and listened. Everybody except four people. Those four people stayed standing, and they happened to be directly in front of us. As the concert started, the person directly in front of me asked me if he could stand (because he couldn’t see very well.) I said ok, but could you stand over by the wall? Well, this guy saw four people standing directly in front of him, realized he could see even less, and stayed standing to become the fifth jerk in the building. We were trying to get a glimpse of Sufjan’s head in the space between their silhouetted arms and bodies, and the people behind us were getting pissed. It should have been an easy-to-resolve issue, right? The five morons should have seen everybody else sitting down and been embarrassed, right? Well, that’s not exactly how it played out.

A minute or so into the first song, a girl behind us yells “Sit down!” The guy in front of me, the one who politely asked me if he could stand, says “F__ you! Stand up! Get the bouncer if you want me to sit down!” He was gambling that nobody was going to do that. Thankfully, after a tense minute or two, the 4 idiots sat down one at a time, as if they just got tired of standing and weren’t embarrassed by their toolery or whatever. Then the dude in front of me, seeing he was alone, shrugged his shoulders and sat down, too. A peaceful end to what could have been an ugly problem. And this doesn’t change the fact that people who stand up at concerts should be killed[5].

Mr. Stevens and his band all came out wearing what looked like khaki-and-red Nehru jackets with bird wings on the back. It was a nice look, but Sufjan’s wings were bigger than everyone else’s and he kept running them into stuff and people on the stage. There was a movie-style screen in back of them that played multimedia presentations that went with each song[6], most of them psychedelic or artsy in nature. The band had (at my count, but giant speakers blocked my view, so I may have been wrong) 15 members including Mr. Stevens. All but the drummer, a guitarist with a Team Zissou-like red cap, and the main chick backup singer/guitarist/keyboardist/opening act[7] were on his right side in a two-row pack. I’m not sure, but I think some of them were missing wings. They all looked like they were having fun while they were playing, with lots of smiles and interaction.

Sufjan’s band makes a concerted effort to sound just like the albums sound. They sometimes switch up the background music to a song, but it all fits into the recognizable Sufjan milieu. There are sweeping crescendos followed by hushed lows, with lots of strings and horns and banjo. It’s wonderful to experience live, and it made me rediscover a love for many of the songs he played. It’s always interesting to find out which songs are better in concert than on the album, and which ones don’t translate as well. “Sister[8],” “The Transfiguration,” and of course “Chicago” were probably the highlights for me, although hearing “Detroit” in concert was a special treat, being as it’s one of my favorite songs (and the only one he played) off his “Michigan” album. The only song I didn’t totally love was “Majesty’s Snowbird,” which I had never heard before and went on too long. Plus, the bird-themed screen presentation was giving me flashbacks to the movie The Falls.

The one moment that stands out was during the Transfiguration, when he goes into the last repeated chorus of “Lost in the clouds, a voice…” The screen was showing clouds and the band was tight and the chorus was magical and Sufjan and Chick Lit’s voices were blending amazingly and that’s probably my favorite part of any Sufjan song ever…I got actual goosebumps. Something about seeing the clouds on the screen was just indescribable.

As expected, they played a bunch of songs (5) off the album “Illinois.” But they played just as many from his personal/Christian/side project “Seven Swans.” I thought that was interesting. People seemed to really like anything he did, so I don’t think that decision helped or hurt him. As I mentioned before, he played just one song off “Michigan,” which is too bad. As much as I love the bopping boppery of “Detroit,” I would have loved to also hear “Romulus[9]” or “Vito’s Ordination Song,” or heck, anything else. I could have listened to him for 2 more hours.

They also only played one song off their new outtakes compilation, “The Avalanche.” It is incredibly cool that he didn’t feel the need to do more to promote it. You gotta respect that. The final two of the 14 songs slots were filled with unreleased songs about birds. He seemed to indicate that he had been working on songs about birds, and the wings they were wearing indicated that “birds” was kinda the theme of the whole concert. Maybe that’s why they played the song “Seven Swans.[10]

Sufjan’s concert persona is quiet, with an understated sense of humor and some mild fake-outs[11]. He also didn’t register a response when this audience exchange happened:

Fan One (yelling): We love your band!

Fan Two (yelling): All of it! (laughter from audience)

Fan Three, in balcony (yelling): We love your body! (pause) All of it!

He’s actually really good at ignoring that kind of tomfoolery, or for that matter anything else the audience says. This could come off as too serious or pretentious (especially when wearing giant wings), and thankfully that “We love your body” guy got the hint and didn’t yell anything else.

I’m tired of praising the man -- just go see a Sufjan show, now. You shan’t regret it.

Set List

Sister (Seven Swans)
Casimir Pulaski Day (Illinois)
Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Michigan)
The Lord God Bird (Unknown)
Dear Mr. Supercomputer (The Avalanche)
The Transfiguration (Seven Swans)
Jacksonville (Illinois)
The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us! (Illinois)
John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (Illinois)
A Good Man is Hard to Find (Seven Swans)
Majesty Snowbird (Unknown)
Seven Swans (Seven Swans)
Chicago (Illinois)
The Dress Looks Nice on You (encore, from Seven Swans)

[1] In fact, my wife says that concept albums are “The wave of the future,” and she suggested I use that exact phrase when writing this. For previous concept album artists, see every band of the 70’s. It’s also the wave of the past.

[2] “Christian artist” being of course a term more loaded than a baked potato, and one I personally abhor. I would call him a Christian artist, since he’s a Christian and an artist and his art reflects Christianity. Others (including myself sometimes) would have a definition that’s either more or less broad than that. The point is, things are what they are no matter how we define them. And Sufjan’s undeniably both Christian and secular, and he’s rapidly approaching territory nobody (save possibly Pedro the Lion -- possibly) has walked in years. I mean, U2 practically did backflips in the mid-80’s to get off this very path.

[3] Instead of making extra suburbs like St. Louis would, Dallas white people have just joined together inside already-existing cities and made their own communities with their own names. There’s Lakewood and Highland Park in Dallas, and Las Colinas and Valley Ranch in Irving. These communities exist so that white people whose addresses are in Irving can pretend they live in a better city than the one listed on their address – i.e., “My gosh, Sally, you live in Irving? What went wrong?” “It’s ok, we live in Valley Ranch.” “Oh, whew – I thought you had fallen on hard times.”

[4] As estimated by eyeballing the crowd, as well as the amount of increased clapping for the song “The Transfiguration,” which is a basically Bible story in song form and a fave among the his Christian fans. Admittedly, this correspondent didn’t take any polls or anything. Notice 50% is exactly half-and-half. I’m playing weatherperson here a little bit.

[5] Obviously, this rule comes with some caveats. Standing at a punk rock show is mandatory, for example. But the hard-and-fast rule is this: The majority rules. If the majority of people are sitting, you’re sitting. And it doesn’t matter how crappy your seats are.

[6] I feel I must mention the main faux pas of the evening, which was that a Superman-themed multimedia presentation clearly made for Sufjan’s “Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts” was played during “Jacksonville.” Must have been a last-minute mixup or something.

[7] Referred to as “Chick-Lit” from this point on, because with her thrifty dress, funky hair, and glasses, she looked like a Chick who could write some serious Lit.

[8] Made even better by the fact that the audience (including me) clapped after the “loud” part, not realizing the song wasn’t over. My wife even thought the second part of “Sister” was a whole other song.

[9] A song about kids with an indifferent mother, it probably remains his best “story-telling” song, at least in the gut-churning emotional sense of “best.” True story: As we were walking out, my wife started to have a conversation with the guy behind her, and his one regret was that Sufjan didn’t play “Romulus.” And this guy looked like a frat guy. Clearly, the song has some power.

[10] Most surreal Christian moment of the show: This song’s ending, which is a ghostly chorus of “I am the Lord” with Sufjan whispering “He says” in between and scary music playing in the background. It was great.

[11] Ex) He introduced the last song as “A song about one of my favorite cities,” and the band started in with the theme song to Dallas. Then, a few bars in, “Chicago” starts. Hee hee.


  • At 5:08 PM, Blogger Brian said…

    So, I keep wanting to just have a long sit-down about all of this with you. I've been listening to Seven Swans in my car (it's my personal favorite) and, well...I don't know. I have a lot to say.

    One thing that's always made me laugh and shrug, re: how nobody bats an eyelash about Sufjan's lyrics is that I've heard numerous conversations in which someone who wouldn't be down with loving a "Christian" record explains Sufjan's lyrics by calling it things like "Neo-Bilbical Folk."

    This is something I think would make an excellent conversation, but I think that obviously lots of folks think Christian Music is all regular pop songs in which "Jesus" has been subbed in for "Baby," and lots of the folks that think that also think that you can boil Christian faith down the same way, into nothing but platitudes and feel-good BS. (Speaking of which, how about Casimir Pulaski Day, as far as not just breaking faith down into easy-to-swallow stuff? The guy tells it like it is. All the glory that the Lord has made indeed.) So, anyway, I guess my pointi s that I'm glad sufjan is out there making Christians look a little bit less Pat Robertson-y.

    It kind of reminds me of a story Jill told me once. The details are fuzzy, and I can't really be positive she told it..could've conceivably been someone else. Anyway, it's about how she was in texas in a bar when "Life is Beautiful" was in theatres, and she hasn't seen it yet, but has been hearing truckloads of good things about it. She figures, with all these people repping for it, she should probably go see it later. Then, at some point, she's in a bar and there's this guy. A huge, burly guy. The kind of guy I assume would have 'Made in Texas' stamped on the bottom of his foot if you took his boot off. He says, "Now, I got a movie for y'all to go see. And you gotta go see it. It's subtitled and all, but, trust me--it ain't like all those other foreign movies..."

    So, Sufjan:Xian rock::Roberto Benini:Foreign Movies? Maybe. But I'm sure your readership will see the broader points, if they're keen on reading comments on old posts.

  • At 8:35 PM, Blogger Mike Pape said…

    It's funny -- i hadn't listened to Seven Swans in a while, so I kept haring these songs I recognized and could sing along with but I couldn't figure out which album they were from. Now it's my favorite album, too. It's sad that I kept getting bored of the actual song Seven Swans (more evidence of my lack of musical taste) and would always jump ahead in the middle, thereby avoiding the best part. Patience is a virtue.

    After spending much of this morning watching Joel Osteen self-help his way through another packed sermon, I can definitely see Sufjan's honesty as being good for people, so they can see what Christianity is about. It's also good that (and here's where I morph into a Lutheran before your eyes -- probably also related to my Osteen watching) Sufjan's Christian messages are about Jesus' sacrifice and human frailty and self-doubt rather than God being one's girlfriend. I love that he's all artist, and he lives that call and wallows around in it. I also think (probably somewhat erroneously) that I understand him and what he's trying to do. I, too, have fixated on the "go" part of Chicago, for example. So he's like this perfect artist for me, and the fact that the general public thinks so too is freaking me the heck out.

    P.S -- When Joel Osteen is dissected one day, scientists will find he is made entirely of platitudes and feel-good BS.

    Neo-Biblical Folk or Biblical Neo-Folk? Whichever, we need more of it.


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