The Whispering Magic of Sufjan Stevens

I saw my cousin Andreas a few months ago, at my younger cousin Tia’s sweet sixteen. It was the first time I’d seen him in about a year, and he looked different – he’d grown a mound of thick, curly hair, he’d grown an inch or two, and he wore a bowtie.

College really had changed him.

I rarely reach out to him, but I wish to make more of an effort. To be honest, though, I sometimes forget my parents exist while I’m caught in the whirlwind of a blooming and beautiful, albeit jarring, college experience. Still, Andreas will occasionally send a Facebook message my way, asking how my second year has been going, and I’ll respond:

I went to a really chill party this past weekend.

I played a lot of guitar yesterday.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers recently. You like them, right?

Yet, the message he sent me a month ago went beyond our usual banter. I opened it to find an article about Sufjan Stevens, an increasingly popular folk musician, in which Stevens decries a ‘Christian Nation’ as heretical despite his devotion to Christianity. Andreas eloquently added, “This guy is a fucking genius.”

I read it. Stevens implores Christians to “die to your ego…your narrow-minded ideology,” in order to gain access to their true selves. Though I’m no longer religious, I couldn’t help but agree.

I started listening to Stevens about a year ago, and I hadn’t known that Andreas was also a listener until Tia’s sweet sixteen. When he revealed he was in love with the man’s music, I related my own fan-boy ravings. We proceeded to shower the folk singer with compliments, expressing how enthralled we were by his unorthodox performances, his wild fashion, and his quirky method of expression – but we seemed most intrigued by his musical style. Though Stevens’ music is classified as indie folk, it might as well be classified as introspective, melodic avant-garde, with a refined country flair.  His songs churn, echo, swell with sound, and his lyrics often grapple with topics that are honest, uplifting, and haunting. Most of the songs are minor in key and incorporate a reverberating chamber of guitars, banjos, pianos, and brass that swirl into a mélange of sound, all backed by an unassuming, half-whispering voice that communicates in verses of minimalist poetry. He reminds me of a younger Bob Dylan with a better voice and a subtler twang.

Of course, Andreas, also a talented musician, fell head-over-heels for Stevens. He’s been playing guitar and studying musical composition since grade school, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, his favorite “mainstream” artist is Radiohead. “They’re the kind of group that just always finds a way to one up their previous work,” he once mentioned. “It leads to albums that have mind-boggling depth.”

He said the same about Stevens in our Facebook conversation. We talked about the variety of sounds in Stevens’ lineup, reflecting on the more lighthearted, traditional folk beauty of Illinoise (2005) and its storytelling prowess, raving about the stripped-down album Seven Swans (2004), and marveling at the experimental electronica that surges through every vein of Age of Adz (2010). Like Radiohead, Andreas said, Stevens has the ability to craft diverse, cathartic musical pieces that consistently make the listener feel reflective, wistful, and vulnerable.

Carrie & Lowell (2015), Stevens’ most recent album, is his most introspective. It’s a simple, heartbreaking ode to his recently-passed mother, Carrie, a rarely-present apparition in his life, who battled schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and eventually succumbed to stomach cancer.

The first track on the album, “Death with Dignity,” begins with Stevens’ whispery, ethereal voice and his subtle musings on mourning and forgiveness:

Spirit of my silence, I can hear you / But I’m afraid to be near you / And I don’t know where to begin . . .

I forgive you mother; I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end / Yes every road leads to an end . . .

The album creeps toward a stunning, somber middle with “Fourth of July,” an ambient track that illustrates Stevens’ views on mortality and visceral, familial love:

The evil it spread / Like a fever ahead / It was night when you died, my firefly . . .

Well you do enough talk / My little hawk / Why do you cry? . . . / We’re all gonna die . . .

Other tracks like “The Only Thing” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” are just as affecting. The album comes to a misty-eyed close with “Blue Bucket of Gold,” a swelling sendoff that trails off behind a floating choir.

Naturally, when Andreas sent me another Facebook message about a week ago, the first sentence he wrote was: “Dude, Carrie & Lowell is such an amazing fucking album.”

I couldn’t help but agree.

We then engaged in an in-depth back and forth about how Stevens has the ability to tap into a wide range of emotions in each piece, and in such a short time span. The conversation broadened in scope, and we soon found ourselves talking about impactful books we’d recently read. At some point, we started talking about our own lives: our dissatisfaction with a competitive artistic reality, dreams deferred by worries about the future.

“I’m sitting through all these hardcore quantitative classes and asking myself how the hell my education is helping me become the person I wanna be,” he wrote. “I hate every programming and math class I’m in and I know I’ll be miserable if I put all of that ahead of making music. But it’s so hard to make it as an artist, you know?”

“Well, I’m constantly worried I’m making the wrong decision pursuing a career in writing, but you know what? That’s what makes me happy,” I replied. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is. You can’t put off what you really want to do just because you want to play it safe.”

Silence on the other end for a few minutes. “Thanks,” he eventually wrote back. “I sorta needed to hear something like that. It’s nice to know other people feel the same.”

Just before I signed off, I told him that we needed to hang out in the future, and I genuinely meant it.

“Of course,” he wrote. “I’d love to.”

It wasn’t until after my smile faded that I realized what Stevens, that whispering musical magician, had done. He’d brought us together. –Andrew Jacono

Andrew Jacono '19 is from Long Island, New York, and is a sophomore at Wesleyan University majoring in English and French Studies. His work has recently appeared in Short Fiction Break.