Against the adz
Sufjan Stevens took cover from the music industry after success found him, but now he has come out fighting - with a whole new armour of songs, finds Ed Power
Not that anybody really noticed at the time, but a year ago, Sufjan Stevens nearly gave up on music. After a series of critically adored albums -- at least one a bona fide hit -- it dawned on the dulcet-tonsilled Brooklyn songwriter that, in an age of 99-cent downloads, plummeting record sales and a culture of instant gratification, the traditional rock album was dead. Staring into a Lady Gaga-shaped abyss, he decided he'd had enough.
"I'm at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone," Stevens stated in a September 2009 blog-posting on his record label's website. "Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music -- that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together -- I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process."
Twelve months on, the 35-year-old Christian singer has evidently changed his mind. In late August, with no fanfare, he put out a 60-minute EP, All Delighted People. A few weeks later, again with as little fuss as possible, his label announced there was to be a full-length album, his first proper longer player since 2005.
That record turned out to be The Age of Adz, a roiling, discordant, in places marzipan-sweet collection of quasi-symphonic mood pieces. Listening to it is an occasionally exhilarating experience, but often a very strange one. Certainly, anyone anticipating something as straightforwardly lush and gorgeous as his last full-fledged album, Illinois, would do well to adjust their expectations.
"What was required, I think, was a form of self-sabotage," says Stevens of his jarring shift in direction. "The new record is kind of a representation of that, of taking a song and, you know, subverting it with all kinds of electronic processes and then, through that, coming back and re-shaping and redefining everything ... It was kind of exciting to do that."
Does he stand by his comments that, with the album in its death throes, music is headed for a dead end? "No ... I was kind of working things out and having a hard time contextualising everything. I feel I had to sort of work through that process, and musically get to the point where I felt confident and excited enough about the material to want to share it."
Beneath a sometimes saccharine veneer, The Age of Adz moves to a dark and heavy heartbeat. Inspired in part by the work of the Louisiana 'outsider artist' Royal Robertson, the LP can be read as an extended meditation on madness and depression. Like the mentally disturbed Robertson, Stevens knows what it's like to wrestle demons and walk away feeling the loser.
"He had a mental illness," he says. "He was sick, he had schizophrenia. I definitely don't have schizophrenia. I don't have a mental illness. But I think ... I definitely go to these sort of dark places when I'm working alone. I have kind of a tendency towards depression. Generally, I'm a very upbeat, functional and optimistic person. I can't pretend to have experienced what he has experienced. I think he represents the worst extremities of an artist's life."
Ostracised by family and community, Robertson suffered horribly for his art. Are there parallels with Sufjan's life and career? "Well, my own problems are personal problems," he says. " They have nothing to do with with my profession as a musician. I won't go into all the details. The success of the Illinois record ... creatively, that definitely changed my approach."
Did he resent being successful? "I immediately felt an instinctive rebellion against the whole process," he says. "It shifted my motivations. It's normal to do this. I wanted to do away with concepts."
His first post-Illinois project was a cacophonous, instrumental suite paying tribute to, of all things, the Brooklyn-Queens
Expressway, a crumbling highway intersecting greater New York. Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The BQE saw Stevens jettisoning many of the tropes for which he had become famous: the observational lyrics, the dainty chamber pop arrangements, the hooks and the choruses. In hindsight, even he admits it was a strange step to take.
"That was such an all-encompassing conceptual endeavour," he says. "In some ways, it was devoid of any foundation. It wasn't based on story or character or narrative. It was based on, you know, this ugly urban expressway. It was a reaction against Illinois. From there, I lost my bearings. I had kind of eliminated the song, the concepts. I had eliminated anything personal."
What he really hated, you sense, was the quasi-fame bestowed on him by Illinois, which, along with its predecessor, Michigan, was to have been the opening salvo in a 50-disk musical paean to every state in the American union (the project has been quietly shelved). "I'm not well adjusted to the music world and to being a celebrity or having any kind of recognition," he says. "I'm more comfortable being in a small space. I appreciate being able to do what I do. Ultimately, though, it wasn't about the grind of a musical career. My problems are definitely more personal."
Stevens clams up a little -- okay, a lot -- when the conversation turns, as it must, to his religious beliefs, a matter of controversy in the alternative music circles. In a scene where self-satisfied, Richard Dawkins-flavoured atheism is the standard credo, Stevens' Christianity sets him apart (he was raised as part of the Subud community, an affiliation of inter-faith spiritualists). It's a subject he's (understandably) reticent to touch on, for fear of being defined as a 'Christian songwriter' rather than a songwriter who happens to believe in God.
"My faith is personal, you know," he says. "I'd rather keep it that way. I don't think it has much social or public relevance ... what I believe in. Sure, it informs some of my music and my views. But I think my work stands alone. It doesn't need to be confused with all of that."
He would allow, surely, that there is a powerful spirituality to his best work? "All music is spiritual," he says. "It's an abstract transcendent language. It allows us to communicate things that are unseen, that don't exist in reality. It allows us to express feelings with a kind of augmentation you know. I would describe that as being spiritual."
Just up, Stevens has yet to check his email, or ping his Facebook friends, or tweet about breakfast. He is surprised when I tell him that, several hours before our interview, his record label Asthmatic Kitty put out a statement bemoaning online retailer Amazon's decision to bulk discount The Age of Adz.
"We have mixed feelings about discounted pricing," said Asthmatic Kitty in a press release. "We love getting good music into the hands of good people, and when a price is low, more people buy. A low price will introduce a lot of people to Sufjan's music and to this wonderful album. For that, we're grateful. But we also feel like the work that our artists produce is worth more than a cost of a latte."
The label's most successful artist isn't sure he agrees. "I think we're sort of helpless," he says. "We're having to yield to the technology that has been created for us. I don't think any economic control or government legislation is going to create boundaries as to how music is priced. I take a populist approach. I don't flinch at illegal downloads and the massive accessibility of everything. It doesn't bother me. File sharing doesn't bother me at all."
Stevens is a friendly sort, though you suspect a tendency to brood. He isn't without a lighter side, however, and has an easy laugh. He is especially tickled at being name-checked on Snow Patrol's Eyes Open (Put Sufjan Stevens on/ And we'll play your favourite song/ 'Chicago' bursts to life).
"You know, that was weird," he chuckles. "But pretty awesome. I listened to the album they had before that. I couldn't listen to that album because it name-dropped me. In fact, that's why I name-drop myself on the new record, on the song Vesuvius. It was like 'hey, if someone else can drop my name -- then maybe I should give it a try'."
The Age of Adz is released next Friday