I have been listening to Sufjan Stevens. It started when, on a whim, I bought Illinois.1 Hypnotic melodies, inspired instrumentation, inventive lyrics: it was an album I enjoyed listening to. I have since acquired Michigan and his newest, The Age of Adz, which I find myself liking more and more every day: for all its (literal) bells and whistles and voices it’s almost too much sonically, but then there’ll be a melody that I just can’t shake. (Today it’s been the simple crescendo of the line “This is the Age of Adz eternal living!”) and at the same time wondering whether I could ever introduce someone else to it, such as by playing it in the car on a road trip. I still haven’t decided.
“Sufjan Stevens playing banjo” by Flickr user Joe Lencioni (Creative Commons)
All this listening reminded me that he wrote an essay for Topic in 2006 (Topic 9: Music, pp. 39–41).2 I had a subscription to the magazine at the time, but his wasn’t an article I had read, despite the fact that Stevens was pictured on the cover (complete with the “tricked-out ‘stache” that Pitchfork noticed at the time) So I dug it out.
In a series of brief sketches, Stevens narrates his musical autobiography: as a toddler, it was rhythm, through pots and pans spread out on the kitchen floor; as a grade schooler, it was wind instruments, first in the form of a recorder and then, in band, an oboe that he hated; in college, it was a guitar, and it was that which led him to write songs. It is with songwriting that Stevens ends his essay, and it is what he says about it that I end this:
Write what you know, I am told, so I look around the room and serenade the laundry hamper, the soda cans, the psychology textbook. I sing about the loneliness of oboes, the cabbage leaf, loose teeth and Cindy Season, who has since been in and out of rehab, or so my sisters tell me in the gossip columns they send twice a week, handwritten. I write a song about my first grad teacher, Mrs. Williams, her hands brushed with chalk, the knitting needles we made from wood. I sing about my father’s bald spot, the apron, the record player, our dead cat, the glorious noise of Detroit, the Eastern Market. I sing about my mother, the loneliest of oboes, who had left us years ago, hands cupped over her ears to keep out the orchestra of her children, the music of everyday life which was too much to bear. In this song she is dishwasher, table-maker, diaper-changer, traitor, fugitive, tie-dyer, bead-maker, pipe-smoker, 12-step programmer, living one day at a time, with one eye on life and one eye on the conductor with his hands raised to death. This is the song that will be translated into other languages, passed down from generation to generation, sung in unison, a cappella, by monarchs and gypsies and single mothers al around the world. This song will find its home in the hymnals of churches. This song is sung in the loneliest of bedrooms, behind closed doors, by young men and women who fear they are the last ones on earth.
1 There are indeed those of us who still buy music!
2 Topic disappeared soon after I subscribed. In fact, I only received half of my subscription—the aforementioned music issue and Topic 8:Sin. If the magazine didn’t go under beforehand, it was probably done in by the postal rate hike of 2007, which killed a lot of magazines not owned by Time Warner. Very little of Topic remains, though a pretty comprehensive text archive of its website can be found on the Wayback Machine.