The brilliance of Sufjan Stevens
By Carlos Bilan, Staff Writer
“Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or about God?” is a recurring question in the community. It’s so widely discussed that a Facebook page is named after it. But what might be considered a running joke is actually a legitimate question when Stevens’ lyrics are explored.
There are a couple essential things to know about the folk music paragon before proceeding. Stevens’ first name is pronounced as “Soof-yan” and he was born in Michigan, which is also the title of his third album (released in 2003). He also has another album named after a state, Illinois (2005), and you might be wondering at this point if the dude has released albums named after all American states… he hasn’t. He did, however, announce after the release of Michigan that he intended to write an album for each of the 50 states, but he admitted later it was a “promotional gimmick.”
Despite this, Stevens has established almost a two-decade long career, having crafted seven studio albums, not counting two Christmas albums and one yet-unreleased album that was leaked. It’s especially impressive that Stevens not only writes, composes, and produces all his songs, but he is also a multi-instrumentalist—which is one of the reasons why he is highly regarded in the music industry. Moreover, Stevens writes music in different time signatures—giving his work a touch of avant-garde—and has incorporated a cohort of genres into his music. For example, the elaborate and euphoric Age of Adz (2010) has Stevens putting electronic on blast. To top everything off, all of Stevens’ latest five albums—from the wintery Michigan to the melancholic Carrie and Lowell (2015)—have been critically acclaimed.
So, addressing the question, what makes Sufjan’s song lyrics seen either as gay or about God?
Well, it could be about how God relates to Stevens’ faith in Christianity, which he has exhibited through his song writing. His intimate fourth album, Seven Swans (2004) has lyrics alluding to the Bible and is considered a love letter to his faith. Despite this, Stevens has continually stated that he intends to separate his faith from his art. In politics, though, Stevens has been rather vocal through his blog expressing disdain towards Trump by calling him “Donald Duck” and denouncing the fascism, racism, and xenophobia taking place in America.
While it’s most likely that songs from Seven Swans are about his adoration for God, his other albums do not manifest themselves as being about his faith, and putting God into the picture does not really work due to his music’s sexual connotations.
In “John my Beloved” from his latest album Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan says “My tongue on your chest, what can be said of my heart?” While it’s true there’s a John in the Bible, the song has a modern context as he mentions “My order of fries” and “Long Island.” The fact that he lives in New York makes it plausible that the song recounts a personal experience. If Biblical imagery is being used, it’s a metaphor for the subject of the song and the logical explanation is it being about a male lover, since Stevens could be finding solace with this man as he comes to terms with his mother’s death.
In his song “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us”—no, that is not the only long title from the iconic Illinois album—Stevens recounts a best friend whom he was in love with as he sings “Touching his back with my hand I kiss him” and “We were in love” during the song’s emotional apex. Stevens has stated in monologues before performing the song that this references his time at summer camp. Likewise, in an interview with Pitchfork, Stevens stated that some of his “most profound spiritual and sexual experiences were at a Methodist summer camp.” A popular interpretation of the song states that the wasp symbolises the conflict Christianity has with same-sex attraction. Perhaps his friend couldn’t return his feelings due to this, and in the end, Stevens sings that he loves him each day and that he can wait.
It’s interesting that Stevens is set to write a score for an upcoming indie gay film, Call Me by Your Name. Of course, I’m not saying Stevens is gay, but how his lyrics fit the men-loving-men bill is not far-fetched. At the end of the day, Stevens is a brilliant lyricist and an incredible artist.
Stevens is scheduled to release a collaborative album, Planetarium, with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner from The National, and James McAlister later this year.