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The unpredictable enigma of Sufjan Stevens

The multi-instrumentalist, genre-bending singer-songwriter's latest project is for a new film

Sufjan Stevens at the Sasquatch! Music Festival. Photo: Suzi Pratt/WireImage/Getty Images
Sufjan Stevens at the Sasquatch! Music Festival. Photo: Suzi Pratt/WireImage/Getty Images

On the soundtrack of Call Me By Your Name, a new Luca Guadagnino film that has wowed the festival circuit and is to be released more widely this month, Sufjan Stevens has five delicately crafted songs. Two of them, Mystery Of Love, and Visions Of Gideon, are specially composed for the film; the others are taken from older albums. Call Me..., a coming-of-age film set in Lombardy, northern Italy, is about the gay romance between a teenager and a young man. Besides the three songs by Stevens, the soundtrack, hand-picked by Guadagnino, includes tracks by the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the American composer John Adams, songs by British rockers The Psychedelic Furs, Nancy Sinatra, and even Summertime, the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald classic from 1958.

Yet, Stevens’ songs, the two new ones in particular, stand out. That may be because they were written specifically for the film but also because those two Stevens’ songs became part of the narrative for the film—by design. At a press conference at the New York Film Festival last month after his film received a standing ovation, Guadagnino said: “I like in cinema when you have an ominous narrator. It’s something that fascinates me a lot, and in fact, I wanted that here. In a way the narrator became Sufjan Stevens with his new songs, made contemporary.... I felt Sufjan’s lyricism, both in the voice and the lyrics itself, had some beautiful elusiveness on the one hand, and, on the other hand, poignancy that really resonated." Elusive and poignant. The Italian director may well have been describing 42-year-old Stevens’ musical oeuvre.

A still from Call Me By Your Name, a coming-of-age film set in Lombardy.

He could have added another descriptor—enigmatic. Sufjan Stevens’ (Sufjan is a pre-Islamic Persian name but Stevens is Detroit-born and white) music has been variously described as being indie folk, indie pop, alternative rock and electronic, which is a lot of categories, not all of which commonly intersect. But it’s true. Stevens makes all those kinds of music. His first album, A Sun Came, explored so many folk genres that you would be tempted to label it “world music". It had Celtic, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Moroccan, and American folk. On it Stevens is credited with playing 21 instruments, including his favourite, the banjo.

The following year, Stevens released Enjoy Your Rabbit, an instrumental electronic album inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac, with tracks named after the Chinese zodiac years, Monkey, Rat, Ox, Pig, Tiger and so on. The tracks explored different moods—euphoric, contemplative, and introspective—and marked a sharp departure from his eclectic but folksy debut album. His next album, Michigan (actual title: Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State), released in 2003, was the first in an ambitiously proclaimed series of 50 albums, themed on each of the American states. It was a homage to his home state and Stevens went back to the folk idiom, with lyrics exploring various subjects: the state’s dying industrial cities, such as apocalyptic Detroit; descriptive ballads on the state’s landscapes; and about its people. Seven Swans, another folk album, quickly followed Michigan but it was one that had many sparse songs rooted in tales from the Bible—referencing characters such as Abraham and expressing remorse for the suffering (presumably of Jesus). But the faith-themed compositions don’t stop Seven Swans’ beautiful melodies from growing on you.

Since then, Stevens has brought out three albums. In 2005, Illinois was released as part of that ambitious series on states. The 22 songs on Illinois mostly reference people, things, and incidents related to the state. Stevens’ lyrics are delicate and poignant. On Casimir Pulaski Day, he sings about the death of a friend and the resulting strains on his faith. Religion and the Bible are frequently referenced in Stevens’ lyrics but his songs are not overtly religious. Instead, religion forms part of the stream of thought.

The lyrics on Illinois are particularly evolved. On the album opener, Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois, Stevens takes off on a reported incident of a UFO sighting by some police officers: When the revenant came down/We couldn’t imagine what it was/In the spirit of three stars/The alien thing that took its form/Then to Lebanon, oh God/The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow/Oh, history involved itself/Mysterious shade that took its form/Or what it was, incarnation, three stars/Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes. Rendered in Stevens’ beautiful voice, the song has transporting powers.

But his most memorable album has to be Age Of Adz, which came out in 2010. It is nothing like Illinois. With it, Stevens took a turn that most listeners probably didn’t expect. Where Illinois had been soft, gentle and sentimental, Age Of Adz is quite the opposite. Electronica was back; so were a rocking beat, lush arrangements; and a musical sprawl hitherto unseen in his work. Emotions still abounded in his songs but guitar riffs, synth and bass lines faced off with grand orchestral string arrangements to create what is clearly Stevens’ most lavish experiment. The high point of the album is Impossible Soul, a 25-minute-plus epic on a 75-minute album. That sprawling composition is a five-part song with so much happening in terms of musical arrangements that it could sometimes become too overwhelming.

The two songs for Guadagnino’s film are quite in contrast. On Mystery Of Love, Stevens’ banjo plucking accompanies lyrics about love and the fear of losing it that reference Hephaestion, Alexander’s companion and lover. On Visions Of Gideon, with gradually soaring notes from keyboards, flutes and synths, he sings: I have loved you for the last time/ Is it a video? Is it a video?/ I have touched you for the last time/ Is it a video? Is it a video?

Stevens’ long time fans love them already but as the film gets a larger audience, they could get him many new ones.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. Mystery Of Love by Sufjan Stevens from Call Me By Your Name (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

2. Visions Of Gideon by Sufjan Stevens from Call Me By Your Name (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

3. Vesuvius by Sufjan Stevens from Age Of Adz

4. John My Beloved by Sufjan Stevens from Carrie & Lowell

5. Come On Feel The Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens from Illinois

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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