The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Beards, Blazers & Glasses Or Sufjan Stevens: Everything Is Illuminated

While watching Sufjan Stevens' sold-out show at the Wiltern on Monday night it became readily apparent to me that Stevens is the Jonathan Saffran Foer of indie rock. Like his fellow Brooklynite Foer, it goes without saying that Sufjans is a talented artist. Anyone who heard last year's very strong and rather overrated Illinois album can tell you that. But unfortunately like his kindred spirit, the precocious post-modern Foer, Sufjan Stevens' act is full of a distracting array of gimmicks that undercut the message he hopes to present. Allow me to explain.

Taking the stage backed by a full orchestra, every member of Stevens' ensemble was clad in angel wings. Now in theory, I have nothing against the idea of spectacle, something the always ambitious Stevens was inevitably trying to project. But when spectacle works, it works with a band like the Flaming Lips, an act who over the years has succesfully managed to pair its whimsical subject material with an energetic and gimmicky stage show that works in tandem with the band's themes. But Sufjan Stevens isn't a whimsical songwriter. Not by any means.

Sure, his songs might have all sorts of cutesy ironic titles like "The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are off Our Lands!" (Ok maybe genocide isn't so cutesy). But ultimately, Sufjan Stevens is a singer/songwriter, one who whether he admits it or not is trying to get his audience to feel some sort of emotion.

Sufjan Stevens Doing His Best Saturday Night Live Spartans Cheerleaders Impression

But it's hard to take Stevens seriously when his entire stage show is dependent on some sort of rotating gimmick. Last night he was "the majesty snowbird"and felt compelled to sing the first half of his set with a mask straight out of the orgy scene from "Eyes Wide Shut." Previously, he'd been a Head Cheerleader (seen above), a Boy Scout Leader, and a Head Priest with a group of dancing Indie Rock Nuns (I may be making this last one up).

Dressing up in costume is cool and all if you're at a masquerade ball or named Gene Simmons, but when paired in tandem with songs about serial killers it only serves to cheapen the effect. Sure, I like hushed serial killer ditties as much as the next man, but how am I really supposed to listen seriously when the guy singing it to me is dressed in a pink pair of butterfly wings?

Indeed, the night was full of contradictions, as Stevens whipped through an hour and a half set of songs, mostly from Illinois, with a couple Avalanche, Greetings From Michigan and a few songs from his forthcoming Christmas EP's. One moment, you'd be smirking at the sight of the inflatable superman dolls being thrown around the Wiltern (during "The Man of Metropolis.."), the next you'd be cringing as Stevens sang songs about serial killers in his hushed camp-fire whisper.

Sufjan Stevens Proving Once and for All to the Indie Nation That It is Possible for him to Suck

The night was not without its charms. Stevens' backing orchestra sounded majestic and thundering, the perfect accompaniment to the lush mellifluous melodies from his albums. In fact, Stevens' true calling might not be an indie rock troubadour but rather, a brilliant film composer, as his songs performed live carried the weight of a triumphant movie score (though I suppose the makers of Little Miss Sunshine already figured that one out).

There is no denying Stevens' genius in arrangements, nor his talents at the myriad instruments that he plays. However, as the night dragged on, I was left with the feeling that I was listening to the same songs over and over, as though Stevens had mastered a formula to writing one song really really well (insert 4 parts banjo, three parts violin, two parts trumpet, a dash of oboe, stir, bake and serve).

Furthermore, blurred together, his songs seem to only come in two forms: songs about real people in real historical times (see "Adlai Stevenson"), or songs about his own life that for some reason have bizarre titles concerning the state in question (see "Casamir Pulaski Day).

By the end of the evening, I'd begun playing Sufjan Stevens madlibs. Yes, you too can play at home. Okay, here goes:

I was traveling to [insert geographical destination] in a [insert mode of transportation] when I slept in a [insert location] that made me feel [insert emotion] so I touched my [insert body part] and kissed [insert person] on their [insert body part] directly as the light pressed against the [insert piece of furniture.]

Sufjan Stevens Dressed Up As Betsy Ross

So here's my Madlibs for his song "Mickey Mouse Says Hello To Goofy, But Gets Mad Because Walt Disney Was A Major Anti-Semite and Possible Nazi Sympathizer" from his undoubtedly forthcoming California album.

I was traveling to [Disneyland] in a [golf cart] when I slept in the [parking lot] which made me feel [sad] so I touched my [forearm] and kissed [Jeanine] on the [shoulder] directly as the light pressed against the [window pane.]

Poignant, huh? Pitchfork's already given that song a 5 star track review. They're claiming he's the next Justin Timberlake.

But I digress. Of course, I'm being hard on Stevens. After all, his show was decent, even if its emotional resonace was siphoned away by his need to be "clever." But ultimately, what's most frustrating is that Stevens doesn't really need any gimmicks. He's a capable song-writer, a proficient musician and a talented arranger. There's no need to dress up like Tinkerbell or a Youth Pastor or Abraham Lincoln (which is inevitably the next step for this tour).

Like Jonathan Saffran Foer who feels the compulsive need to insert smug post-modern jokes into his literature (a flip book, blank pages, pages with one word), Stevens seems trapped in a maze of trying to be even more ironic than the next person. Is he the second coming of Bob Dylan? Not quite. In fact, he's not even the second coming of Elliot Smith. But he's good and there is no masking asking his talents, even if they're being partially obscured behind a pair of pair of giant pink angel wings.

Download Sufjan Stevens-"Majesty Snowbird" Live (left-click) (a new song he played live)

Download Sufjan Stevens-"
Jacksonville" (right-click, save as)


At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Zilla is Clever said...

"I was traveling to Intercourse, Pennsylvaniua in a brown Datsun when I slept in a bed similar to the one in "Billie Jean" that made me feel gassy so I touched my upper dorsimus and kissed Ben Savage on the toenail directly as the light pressed against the bargin bin Ikea lamp."--Sufjan's latest masterpiece

I'm doing the remix of this jawn.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger CrimeNotes said...

Foer's musical counterpart isn't Sufjan Stevens, it's Bright Eyes, for whom Foer has expressed great admiration and labeled the Dylan of his generation. If for no other reason, that should be enough to make you spurn Foer forever.

Here's why I appreciate the Sufjan Stevens gimmickry: I find his songs sufficiently drowsy and heavyhanded that, without a little whimsy, his shows would collapse from the weight of all the earnestness and quietude. They're beautifully crafted but not the raw material for a great live set. A lighthearted persona can go a long way when you're singing about John Wayne Gacey.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Mo! said...

Love his music to death but I agree. It seems like musicians, novelists, even some comedians try pomo gimmicks just to fit in. Hopefully this is just a phase and Sufjan will do something more sincere like dress in drag.

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

I like Foer a lot...and people say we look alike. So I won't bash him. Pardon me.

As for Sufjan, I don't trust anyone who needs a stage gimmick. Almost every show I see (and I see an awful lot) is devoid of everything but the bands themselves and a light rig -- and you know what, it still fucking works after all these years.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I'm anxiously awaiting to listen to Stephen Zales' Pennsylvania...I seriously spent about four hours reciting improvised madlibs after that show in the Sufjan voice (suprisingly easy to do and definitely good for comic relief...)

Notes: I know about Foer's love of Bright Eyes which is both bogus and sad. However, for all we dislike Bright Eyes the guy is pretty unvarnished. Sure he did that electro album but as much as he sucks he sits down and plays and doesn't do any gimmicks. In that regard, he and Foer are very different. Bright Eyes isn't clever he's just a gimp, but Sufjan and Foer both feel the exceeding need to prove how witty and post-modern they are. Though I'll throw down for Sufjan any day in that royal rumble. I didn't like Everything is Illuminated. At all. I do like Sufjan's music at least.

Mo and Ace: Glad to see that I'm not alone. I'm all for being wild and out there as can be. However, singer songwriters should ask themselves
a) would dylan do this and
b) would Neil Young
and if neither of them would do it, it may not be a good idea. And Neil Young was pretty damned weird (see the cover of This Note's 4 U)

At 3:10 PM, Blogger Nate said...

I found Sufjan's antics rather amusing. But I could understand how it could be annoying to people watching in the audience.

But the guy totally has that Peter Pan "Our imagination can take us anywhere we want" thing going on, that's kind of scary.

And dude talks like Kip Dynamite.

But other than that, his show was pretty amazing. I find him to be a very talented musician. The show was almost like an indie rock symphony.

What about the opening band, my brightest diamond? Their name should have been Nightmare Lullaby if you ask me. Is it me, or does a piece of music require violins in order to qualify as haunting?

Lastly, when the hell are Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, and Wilco going to make it around to L.A. Their aversion of the left coast is starting to anger me a bit.

At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

he didn't play anything from the avalanche

At 4:55 PM, Blogger Douglas Reinhardt said...

Sufjan Stevens has only one good song or at least I've only heard song by him that didn't istantly put me to sleep. The costumes are there to keep people awake.

At 5:45 PM, Blogger stantonandorchard said...

"I was traveling to Detroit in a Zamboni Machine when I slept in a casino that made me feel lucky so I touched my ring finger and kissed Barry on their feet and toes directly as the light pressed against the love seat."

madlibs are fun. that's as far as my ability to discourse goes. nice review though

At 11:53 PM, Blogger Scott said...

god, leave it to you to already have the unreleased song ready for me to absorb. You ole SOB!

Hey, did you hear when NPR wanted to Interview Sufjan Stevens, they announced it 3 months in advance, telling their listeners that they wanted to explore how he created these totally esoteric and cultural songs. So they gave him a topic, the Lord God Bird, indigenous to Arkansas. 3 months later he came, played it, and look at me...I'm still here talkin about it.

Its run of the mill sufjan, but this mill is a better mill...of wine...and stuff. Drugs! Yeah, that's it drugs.

At 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The wings were clever, for a moment. Then I forgot about them. I mean, until he would deliberately stand to the side and move back and forth to make them flap. Boorish and tired. I was just there for some good music. Instead, after a good 45 minutes, I started experiencing that same bit of deja vu...the same banjos the same strings, the same driving horns. The same construction, the same progression. My brain hurt. I found myself wishing I had gotten to see him alone with his guitar, singing a little self conciously during his days of touring with Danielson and his Fruity tree. (I know that there's a proper name for it. I know.)

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a strange thing. I saw the Danielson Documentary not a week after seeing Sufjan in Atlanta. Eye opening to say the least. I find that Sufjan's little band of Butterflies is a poor copy of the sincere spectacle of the Danielson Famile.

At 10:26 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I've actually never seen Danielson but I'd like to...sounds like their live show is worth checking out...I live that Ships album quite a bit actually..way more than I thought I would anyway.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Sara Leah said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Sara Leah said...

Do see Danielson, if you get the chance. A strange experience indeed. Until then, here's the trailer for the movie.


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