Reviews > Music
Marzuki Stevens

Age of ambiguity

Music | Sufjan Stevens keeps fans and critics guessing

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 18, 2010

What to make of Sufjan Stevens?

He's mentor to Christians who see themselves not as "Christian artists" but as "artists who are Christians." His own indie label, Asthmatic Kitty, has a stable of more than a dozen musicians-including The Welcome Wagon, a duo made up of Stevens' Brooklyn pastor Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique. Stevens is a member of their Presbyterian Church in America congregation and himself went to a Christian college. He wasn't afraid to play churches and the CCM circuit when he got his start in the mid-'90s.

But Stevens' music and his life defy simple descriptions. Early albums featured an indie-folk vibe, though never the proverbial "three chords and the truth." Even from the beginning, they were more like 30 chords and several views of the truth.

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His latest, The Age of Adz, continues the indie-vibe and hall-of-mirrors view of the truth. But it's hardly folk. Electronica and elaborate instrumentations abound, and the final cut on the album, "Impossible Soul," is more than 25 minutes long-a song Stevens describes in concert appearances as a "magnum opus of love and madness" and performs with a 10-piece band.

Some of the songs on The Age of Adz have blatantly religious themes. "Get Real Get Right" exhorts: "I know you really gotta get right with the Lord/You know you really gotta get right with the Lord." That's normal for Stevens. But these words are spoken by space aliens, so it's hard to know whether they are meant to be taken straight, or with an ironic twist.

And speaking of straight, or not: Friends and critics have been lighting up fan sites and message boards at least since 2005 about lyrics that are-or perhaps are not-homoerotic. There can be little doubt that he sometimes sings with a lush romanticism about male-male love. The music website www.last.fm features Stevens on its "homoeroticism" channel.

All that said, The Age of Adz is undeniably interesting-down to the cover and the album's 12-page liner notes-both of which feature the art of Prophet Royal Robertson. Robertson is sometimes called a "primitive artist," after the school of Howard Finster, whose art once graced an album by REM. Robertson (who died in 1997 and whose work is in the Smithsonian, among other high-end collections) used apocalyptic images, prophetic Bible passages, science fiction, and numerology in his art. These themes are picked up by the music in The Age of Adz. The fact that Robertson was a paranoid schizophrenic and toward the end of his life was overcome by misogynistic rage inevitably has fueled speculation about the possibility of Stevens' own misogyny.

But to return to the original question: Stevens rarely gives interviews, turning down, for example, repeated requests from WORLD. He clearly wants his music to speak for itself. Fair enough: The songs on The Age of Adz are lush and complicated, often nonlinear musically and lyrically, and include aliens and the F-word. If the music is speaking, what is it saying? That life is messy and complicated, that the truth is out there, and that we can approach it-but perhaps can't really grasp it?

As for Stevens himself? The answers to that question offered by the music are more ambiguous. Even his famous-and (to fans) beloved-on-stage theatrics and costumes are designed to obscure, not reveal, the real Sufjan Stevens. As to the question of whether he is gay: Most true Sufjan fans-the ones who propelled The Age of Adz to No. 7 on the Billboard chart-are annoyed by the question. Those who care tend to say he is not gay but some of the characters in his songs are. Still others: He's being intentionally ironic just to keep people thinking deeply about his music.

The closest Stevens comes to making a definitive statement about such questions comes from "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," a song about the serial killer who raped and murdered at least 33 boys between 1972 and 1978 and buried the bodies under his house. The song comes not from The Age of Adz but from his 2005 album Illinoise. Stevens closed every show on The Age of Adz tour-which just wrapped with two sold-out shows at the historic Beacon Theatre in New York-with "Gacy."

The song ends with these words: "In my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid."

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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