Culture > Music

Highway to heaven

Music | Sufjan Stevens leads emerging class of faith-aware artists

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

Wearing vintage threads, they pack a sold-out opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: hundreds of hipsters, the self-aware, the cool kids, the trend-setters, artists, writers, the creative class, the urban philosophers.

They come (some tried to buy scalped tickets, although there were none) to see the world premier of an opera about a highway. Yes, a highway. Those who make it inside see a next-wave musical as bizarre as the 1970s rock opera Tommy by The Who.

The composer, 32-year-old independent rock 'n' roll artist Sufjan Stevens, has shot 8-mm-film clips of artistic, kaleidoscopic, and whimsical scenes of cars moving along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, or BQE. The films roll overhead on three screens as he plays grand piano accompanied by a small orchestra onstage, underneath the film clips. The effect: The symphony appears to be playing under an overpass.

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The musical movements speed up with the traffic on the highway. Horns and string crescendo into chaos when traffic jams ensue on the highway. Between it all, the melodies stream beautifully along with the film of Brooklyn's post-industrial neighborhoods built by immigrants, artists, and working-class folk. Co-ed hula hoop artists come onstage for a routine that seems cheesy but turns brilliant, the spinning hoops imitating spinning wheels and traffic.

Later, Stevens performs a mix of songs from his albums. Playing half a dozen or more instruments, he most often relies on the piano and-strangely-a banjo for his blend of folk-indie rock and orchestral sounds that might be called symphonic rock.

Stevens has been taking the world of independent rock 'n' roll by creative storm, producing critically acclaimed albums with his own label, Asthmatic Kitty. Music magazines, radio stations, and alternative weeklies have bestowed "best album" awards and creative star status upon him. At the same time, he maintains an element of mystery and surprise.

Born in Detroit, Stevens grew up in Petoskey and attended Harbor Light Christian School and a prestigious arts academy before Hope College and, later, a writing program at New York's New School. His Arabic name comes from parents who belonged to an interfaith spiritual community. He maintains friendships in Brooklyn with a Christian community and considers himself Episcopalian.

But he sees his role more as an artist than as a pastor or evangelist: "I don't think music media is the real forum for theological discussions."

Stevens and other independent artists express elements of faith, awareness and, sometimes, Christian upbringing in their music, even if struggling or unaware they are expressing those concepts. The list includes David Bazan, who led Pedro the Lion; Arcade Fire, an ensemble from Montreal; and acoustic act Iron & Wine.

Other emerging talents in Brooklyn include singer-songwriters Kelley McRae, Sarah Fulton, and The Andrews Brothers. Grove City alum Ben Hardt and his symphony have gained a following in Pittsburgh. Wheaton graduate Nicolette Manglos, now at the University of Texas-Austin studying sociology, is another.

Their aim is often honesty and art rather than the contemporary and mainstream music industries' attempt to produce music for a "market."

Stevens' 2004 album Seven Swans featured explicit Christian lyrics: "Abraham, worth a righteous one. Take up the wood, put it on your son. . . . When the angel came, you had raised your arm. Abraham, put off on your son. Take instead the ram until Jesus comes."

But his songs are not all saccharine or Bible stories. The 2005 Come on Feel the Illinoise album featured an eerie track about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., where Stevens describes the childhood and murderous deeds of the killer before reaching a personal conclusion: "And in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid."

-Paul David Glader is a writer living in New York

Paul David Glader
Paul David Glader


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