Sufjan Stevens and Songwriting

Stevens performing at the Pabst Theater. Photo from

I started this post wanting to do a “Six Degrees of Sufjan Stevens” article, but my other thoughts on the topic sort of derailed that effort. And really, Stevens is involved in so many projects that no connection would be all that surprising. I’ve liked Sufjan Stevens’s music for a while now.

I’ve gotten flak about his religious content—“But you’re not really religious, so how can you enjoy his music?”—and I find that kind of sentiment a little absurd. Yes, I get hung up on lyrics, but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree 100% with the message of a song to appreciate how well-crafted it is. That said, I haven’t really listened to Stevens’s Christmas albums… So maybe I’m a bad fan. Or maybe I’m just not interested in hearing anything that wasn’t his to begin with.

What I like about Stevens’s lyrics, be they straightforward observations or more oblique metaphors, is that they all manage to straddle a difficult line, embracing the conceptual without erasing the confessional. If you don’t think this is any major feat, please listen to Muse’s The Second Law, which is forced to the point of dripping in cheese. In the albums Illinois and Michigan, Stevens struck this delicate balance consistently with few, if any, missteps: like a new iteration of Walt Whitman, he sang about the histories and landmarks of these states with an intensely empathetic gusto (particularly shockingly in the song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”). The Age of Adz cleverly sustains the confessional/conceptual equilibrium, with Stevens confessing some startling things while shielded by his concept, particularly in “I Want to Be Well—a song which incidentally started out as my least favorite of the album and eventually became my favorite (and not because of the frisson created by Stevens dropping the f-bomb repeatedly). My admiration of this song stems from how the words “I’m not f-ing around” on top of “I want to be well” communicate the distressing ambivalence the singer is feeling ; he is saying, “I’m not,” but the layering suggests he possibly wants to embrace the illness instead, since, after numerous repetitions, “I want to be well” starts to sound like “Well, I want to be” (as in “I’m not f-ing around—well, I want to be”). I think this is a temptation many people with illnesses face, since being ill affords a perceptiveness, which may or may not be illusory, that others do not possess. It would be all too easy to say, “I am torn between wanting to be well and wanting to be ill, and being torn about it is freaking me out,” but saying that is not powerful—it doesn’t arouse any kind of empathy in the listener.

In my own songwriting, I struggle to write about difficult feelings like this while maintaining the conceptual/confessional balance. I’m currently writing a song about pretense and how we are often unable to tell when we are lying to ourselves. When we pretend as children, we are well aware of the difference between that pretense and reality. Maybe I am overgeneralizing, but I could tell—I wasn’t confused about what I wanted, ever. As I grew older, pretense leaked into my inner monologue (was this due to discontinuing planned pretense?) and sometimes I cannot identify how I really feel about something, which has caused a lot of wrong turns in my life and a lot of second-guessing. It doesn’t sound revelatory, does it? But it would be, if I could write about this concept the way Sufjan would write about it. I don’t want to be too derivative, but if Stevens can steal Simon and Garfunkel lyrics to good effect (“All Delighted People”), maybe I can get away with stealing a device from “I Want to Be Well.” I’ll try it and see how it goes.

Here are a few of my favorite Sufjan songs live. As an added bonus, the first video also includes Bryce Dessner of The National and the second video has Shara Worden on backup vocals. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good live video for “I Want to Be Well.”