Now Hear This!: Sufjan Stevens at the Peabody Opera House
Orchestra wrangler. Reverent mystic. Tortured mystic. Schizo-pop auteur. Purveyor of Christmas cheer. Sufjan Stevens is many things.
In the 15 years since beginning his solo career, Stevens has moved through sounds and styles with an insatiable appetite for self-transformation. His albums veer between bombast and intimacy, mythmaking and memory, profundity and novelty, poking about the furthest reaches of his aesthetic interests. He’s made an electronic song cycle driven by the Zodiac calendar, an orchestral piece inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and 10 discs worth of Christmas music. His formal range compares favorably with the likes of David Bowie; his tonal flexibility approaches Prince.
Like those two, he’s also managed to maintain an air of mystery. The name helps (it’s pronounced soof-yahn), as do infrequent interviews and a dearth of information about his romantic life. Yet he remains even harder to pin down than the Thin White Duke and the Purple One. Sometimes, he makes overtures to persona-building (largely through his elaborate stage costumes); often, he doesn’t. When he engages with the media, he projects an affability that counters his semi-reclusive, shape-shifting ways. His music is colored with specks of profound sadness, yet he largely eschews the trappings of the tortured genius. His religion informs much of his work, but he’s more inclined towards wonder than fealty.
All the genre-hopping and personal mystique would amount to little were they not paired with a songwriter and arranger of prodigious talent. Stevens is just that, writing melodies that can bear weight when paired with only his voice and guitar or shine through a swarm of strings. He’s equally fluent in the physical and emotional qualities of his instruments, lending even his densest compositions the clarity of purpose. At times, his songs are beautiful, funny, tragic and everything in between. If Stevens isn’t one day recognized as one of the creative geniuses of the early aughts, something will have gone horribly awry.
Though his entire discography is worth your time, it can be unwieldy at first sight. Here’s where to start before his show at the Peabody Opera House tomorrow:
1. “Illinois” (2005)
Rarely do records as sprawling as Stevens’ 2005 opus come packaged with so little pretension. The second and final entry in his 50 States Project (following his 2003 album “Michigan,” he jokingly indicated he would make an album about each of the 50 states), “Illinois” rendered further volumes unnecessary. In its heart, whit and whimsy stacked as high as the Sears Tower, the album presents a challenge: to top Stevens’ colorful colossus, to construct a vision so large and so intimate. Throughout, Stevens flaunts his comfort across the range of scale and tone, following lighthearted pocket symphonies with chilling character sketches, each revealing an insight into the range of human emotion.
That insight gives “Illinois” its weight. Wrought with the potential for empty melodrama, “Illinois” instead earns the right to grandstand. Take “Chicago,” a near-perfect six-minute ode to the transformative powers of the big city. Though the lyrics risk anthropomorphic cliche (“You came to take us…To recreate us” he sings to Chicago, teetering on the edge of indulgence), his musical precision gives vivid expression to his musings: strings and backup singers swelling in just the right places, xylophone quivering with excitement.
An emotional travelogue in itself, “Illinois” is an astonishing marriage of ambition and execution. The trick is that Stevens replaces hubris with generosity, returning the listener’s commitment tenfold.
2. “The Age of Adz” (2010)
Though not without precedent, Stevens’ frenetic left turn proved a shock to those who had come to love his way with lush arrangements and acoustic whispers. Inspired by the apocalyptic work of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, “The Age of Adz” darts skittishly about its mechanical landscape. Initially confounding with its frequent twists and turns, repeat listens set the album’s broader movements in focus. Even more than “Illinois,” “Age of Adz” is a feat of compositional balance, conjuring the enormity of helplessness in jagged, pulsating strokes.
Informed by a bout of an unidentifiable illness that left Stevens beset by chronic pain, the album reflects the anxiety of a man newly appreciative of the gift of motion. And move it does, dashing and darting without losing its shape. Overwhelming but never burdensome, “The Age of Adz” proved that Stevens’ gifts transcend the method of their expression.
3. “Michigan” (2003)
A tribute to Stevens’ home state, “Michigan” serves as a muted companion to “Illinois,” forgoing the latter’s wide-eyed wonder for a more pensive air. It meanders where “Illinois” blossoms, evoking both the pleasures and constraints of small-town life. To paraphrase Kendrick Lamar, loving home is complicated, as time breeds an intimate knowledge of its virtues and faults. For every evocation of the state’s natural wonders, there’s an elegy to urban decay. But above all, after two promising but uneven albums, “Michigan” signaled Stevens’ arrival as a major talent, ready to weave threads of potential into a magnificent whole.
Sufjan Stevens plays the Peabody Opera House tonight at 7 p.m.