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)