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Off the Beaten Tracks: Sufjan Stevens, motherless son

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I THINK it’s fair to say that Sufjan Stevens didn’t get off to the most promising start in life. His schizophrenic, alcoholic, drug-addicted mother abandoned him in 1976, when he was a year old, and they saw each other infrequently while he and his siblings were brought up by their father and stepmother. Yet her death in 2012 led Stevens to reflect deeply on their troubled relationship and produce an album of the most delicate beauty, regarded as one of the finest of the 21st century.

Sufjan (pronounced Soof-yarn) Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 1, 1975. His parents Rasjid and Carrie were members of Subud, a spiritual community, and his Persian name means ‘comes with a sword’. Mum was soon on her way. ‘She just wandered off,’ Sufjan told Pitchfork magazine in a 2015 interview. ‘She felt that she wasn’t equipped to raise us, so she gave us to our father.’

Carrie headed for Oregon where she eventually met and married Lowell Brams, who worked in a bookstore. Between the ages of five and eight, Sufjan spent happy summers with them but the couple’s relationship did not last and although he stayed in close touch with Lowell the boy had little subsequent contact with his mother. ‘Sometimes she’d be at our grandparents’ house, and we’d see her during the holidays for a few days,’ he said. ‘There was the occasional letter here and there. She was off the grid for a while, she was homeless sometimes, she lived in assisted housing. There was always speculation too, like, “Where is she? What is she doing?”’

When Sufjan was nine he and his five siblings moved with their father and stepmother Pat to Petoskey in Lower Michigan, where he attended a Christian high school and an arts academy before gaining a Master of Fine Arts degree from The New School in New York City. After studying piano and oboe, he had decided to learn guitar at the prompting of Lowell, who fed him a constant diet of Nick Drake’s music. He played in a band, Marzukie, and formed his own record label, Asthmatic Kitty, with the ever-faithful Lowell in joint charge. In 1999 it released his first solo album, A Sun Came, a slightly disjointed multi-instrumental tour of world music which has its moments such as the second track A Winner Needs a Wand. 

This was followed in 2001 by Enjoy Your Rabbit, an electronic song cycle inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Both records’ remarkable lack of success persuaded him that his future was as an author and he began work at the children’s book division of Time Warner in New York.

His musical breakthrough came with 2003’s Michigan album, recorded on basic equipment in houses, apartments, schools and churches. The lovely opening song, Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid) sets Sufjan’s light and breathy vocal against a mournful background of piano and trumpet. The range of his musical talent can be gauged by the contribution he makes to the album according to the sleeve notes: ‘Oboe, English horn, piano, electric organ, electric piano, banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, recorders, wood flute and likeminded whistles, drum kit, various percussion, shakers, sleigh bells, tambourine, dramatic cymbal swells, singing, rhetoric.’

Banjo comes to the fore on the third track, For The Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.  

Then we have Say Yes! To Michigan! followed by the beautifully played The Upper Peninsula, Holland, and the busy, eight-minute-plus Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!). All this is a touching love letter to his home state similar in feeling to Jonathan Richman’s oft-repeated praise for New England.

The wonderful Romulus is nakedly autobiographical and desperately sad, recalling the absence of Carrie.

Once when our mother called
She had a voice of last year’s cough
We passed around the phone
Sharing a word about Oregon

When my turn came
I was ashamed
When my turn came
I was ashamed

Once when we moved away
She came to Romulus for a day
Her Chevrolet broke down
We prayed it never be fixed or be found

Stevens discusses his Christian faith with Oh God, Where Are You Now? and Vito’s Ordination Song. And interspersed between tracks are some charming instrumentals such as Tahquamenon FallsAlanson Crooked River and Redford

The critics adored Michigan and Stevens, having given up the day job at Time Warner, grandly announced that it was the first in a project to produce albums covering all fifty American states.

However his next record was Seven Swans, a collection of delicate folk songs with an openly religious theme and much simpler instrumentation with Stevens’s banjo at its heart.

The title track refers to the Book of Revelation. ‘He will take you if you run. He will chase you. Because he is the Lord’. In an interview with Uncut magazine, it was pointed out to Stevens that God appears vengeful in his songs. He replied: ‘Oh no. There’s no element of revenge in the character of God, but there’s definitely an aggressive joy. He’s not chasing you like a stalker, he’s chasing you like a lover chases you. There’s a lot of aggression in that kind of romance. We pursue things out of reverence, out of our need to worship.’

The Transfiguration is based on the gospel of St Luke, and concludes: ‘Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Son of God!’

Abraham, from the book of Genesis, describes how God tested Abraham by ordering him to prove his faith by sacrificing his son Isaac. To Be Alone With You appears to be a love song and it is – addressed to Christ.

You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this beautiful music. I saw a comment about The Transfiguration on my internet travels which said: ‘I never thought that I would enjoy songs about religion, but Sufjan isn’t cheesy or preachy about it at all. I’m a hardcore atheist but still love this song.’

Back to the Fifty States Project for 2005’s Illinois or, to give the full title, Sufjan Stevens Invites You To Come On Feel the Illinoise. As with Michigan, this is a multi-instrumental tour de force combining a number of musical genres. However it is less of a memoir and more of a historical project which involved extensive research. Stevens said he chose it because ‘I feel like specifically Illinois and Chicago are sort of the centre of gravity for the American Midwest’.

Some of the subjects are startling. John Wayne Gacy Jr is a portrait of the Chicago serial murderer known as the Killer Clown, who claimed the lives of at least 33 men and boys up to his arrest in 1978.

One of the highlights is Decatur, a whimsical exercise in how many rhymes Stevens could produce with the city that is the county seat of Macon County. Another is Chicago, with its rueful refrain of ‘I made a lot of mistakes’. Then we have Casimir Pulaski Day, about the death of a loved one from cancer. And many more great songs which led several critics to name this their album of the year.

Although Michigan clocks in at a generous 74 minutes, there was enough material left over from the sessions for another album, The Avalanche, released in 1976. Apart from the title track, I mainly remember this record for three further attempts at Chicago titled (acoustic version), (adult contemporary easy listening version) and (multiple personality disorder version). 

Over the next few years Stevens claimed he had been ‘only joking’ when he announced the Fifty States Project and said there would be no more such albums. He collaborated with many other artists and produced records heavy on electronica plus a series of Christmas discs for children, none of which I found of much interest.

Then, in 2015, came the remarkable Carrie and Lowell, about his late mother and stepfather. According to Stevens, writing it provided closure and helped him come to terms with Carrie’s neglectful life and death.

On the opening track, Death With Dignity, Sufjan confesses that ‘I don’t know where to begin’ in re-evaluating the mother-and-son relationship before adding: ‘I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, and I long to be near you’ and regretfully concluding ‘You’ll never see us again.’

Should Have Known Better recalls an occasion when Sufjan was three or four and was left with his siblings at a video store when Carrie went AWOL. This YouTube file of it has been viewed more than 15million times.

The most beautiful and heartbreaking song on the album, and perhaps of Stevens’s entire career, is Fourth of July, when he recalls the night his mother succumbed to cancer and pleads: ‘What could I have said to raise you from the dead?’ He goes on to recount an imaginary conversation with the late Carrie in which she asks him: ‘Did you get enough love, my little dove. Why do you cry? And I’m sorry I left but it was for the best, though it never felt right.’ She concludes with the bleak message ‘We’re all gonna die’.

An extended live performance of Carrie and Lowell is available here. 

Pitchfork’s interviewer asked Stevens if he was there when his mother died. He replied: ‘Yeah. She had stomach cancer, and it was a quick demise. We flew to see her in the ICU before she died. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, but she was aware. It was so terrifying to encounter death and have to reconcile that, and express love, for someone so unfamiliar. Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable. There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you.’

Stevens continues to be prolific with his latest solo album, The Ascension, released in 2020. It ain’t no classic but I do like the title track.

Going back to the making of Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan said: ‘It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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