Friday, April 9, 2010

Album Review: Sufjan Stevens - A Sun Came

Sufjan Stevens: A Sun Came
Asthmatic Kitty (2000, Reissue 2004)


Sufjan Stevens wasn’t always the delicate, acoustic darling of the indie rock community. As probably an even greater shock to the non-indie-fan listeners of Stevens who probably only know him through the remarkably touching and critically hailed album Illinois, it took a time of musical development and broad experimentation for him to reach the level at which he is now. This stage of progression is captured on Stevens’ debut album A Sun Came, which was released in 2000 on a 4-track recorder and then reissued on his new record label Asthmatic Kitty in 2004, of which this review discusses.

Despite critical acclaim, one piece of negative criticism that has dogged Sufjan Stevens on his latest releases is that although they are concept albums meant to set up a story and ambiance, there is too much filler while better quality, full songs, such as those on the excellent Illinois “outtakes” album The Avalanche, are left out of the final product. Should those same critics have picked apart A Sun Came, they would realize that filler was once an even greater flaw with Stevens’ music. The greatest flaw of the album is that it is overlong in just about every aspect: too many tracks, too many seemingly filler tracks, and songs that go on for needless and tiring lengths.

The album begins similarly to more recent releases in that the songs are characterized by thick instrumentation divided by sparse sounding acoustic parts. However, the songs seem more directly rock influenced than the songs on Illinois or Michigan, and he sings with a much greater vocal range, such as on “A Winner Needs A Wand.” Despite these songs sounding quite different from late releases of Stevens, encompassing sounds certainly not familiar to most listeners new to his music, the songs hold up a solid melodic structure with expert instrumentation.

On the topic of fillers, the album then comes to a point that is sure to jolt newcomers to Stevens’ music, as it certainly surprised me. On several occasions in the album, there are short tracks, under a minute, in which an annoying high-pitched voice, presumably of Sufjan Stevens except modified, telling short, very strange stories that, if intended to advance some sort of storyline or mood for the album, is completely lost on me. The worst is on “Belly Button,” in which he says, “One time this kid ate too much food and food started coming out of his stomach, out of his belly button. There was maggots coming out of his belly button.” Come again? Decipher them however you want, but they certainly don’t seem to add anything to the album and rather leave you skipping them whenever you give it a listen through, and most listeners, including myself, should find these snippets quite annoying. At best, I use these fillers as “bookmarks” for delineating the wide territory covered by this sprawling album.

With eerie vocals and even scarier instrumentation and background ambiance noise, the back-to-back songs “Demetrius” and “Dumb I Sound” are two emotionally moving highlights from the album. However the only reason that they flow together is because of a Middle-Eastern influenced outro that begins under 2/3 through the song that, while interesting, detracts from the earlier main part of the song and threatens to make us forget about it altogether.

Following the aforementioned “Belly Button” is where modern-Sufjan Stevens are thrown for another loop, but this time the results are improved. If you are familiar with Stevens’ release Enjoy Your Rabbit, you will know that that album was entirely meant for and focused on electronic music, which in itself is not particularly strange except to show that Stevens has a wider musical taste than originally thought. But the use of the similarly loud noise rock, hinted at sparingly in other releases such as The Avalanche’s “Pittsfield,” comes into full use a bit unexpectedly here. This turns the album into a true mish-mosh of Steven’s wide musical range. “Rice Pudding” is characterized by an irregular drumbeat supporting loud, scratching guitars that are saved by wavering but surprisingly personal vocals and lyrics. “A Loverless Bed (W/Out Remission)” begins as a slow, spacy song that is similarly touching with cryptic lyrics possibly describing a relationship on the rocks. The song advances in a style quite similar to that of the Flaming Lips. With two mintues to go, a freakout of guitar noise is layered on top of a drumbeat that unfortunately tests the listeners’ tolerance towards its end.

More style changes follow, with the clearly lo-fi recorded “Super Sexy Woman” about a fantastical woman, a subject that seems completely new and much wackier compared to anything else Sufjan Stevens has written about. Following that is the great “The Oracle Said Wander” whose eerie lyrics and instrumentation immediately brings to mind the post-rock of Slint.

At this point in the album listening through, whether it has been my first or most recent time, I am tired. The rest of the album gives us the charming and quiet “Happy Birthday” and the soaring, electronica-influenced “Jason” as standouts amid several forgettable tunes.

Through all the twists and turns up to this point, it is only now that we reach what is certainly the ultimate head-scratcher of the entire album: “Satan’s Saxophones.” It begins with another annoyingly voiced monologue (concerning vomit, no less) followed by more than two minutes of seemingly random saxophone screeching and squealing that is immediately intolerable. Pitchfork calls it, uncertainly, “an unwitting musical satire of free jazz.” I call it crap.

Whatever Stevens was going for, two new songs follow it from the reissued album release. “Joy! Joy! Joy!” is a beat happy, electronic song that gets on the nerve quickly. The second new song “You Are the Rake,” however, is a much improved revision of the earlier track “Rake” that, as a result of several more years of development, is much more in line with Stevens’ recent work: fine recording quality, warmer sounding guitar, and an angelic choir supporting the chorus.

All in all, a listener should take in Sufjan Stevens’ A Sun Came in the context that it is the sound of an underdeveloped, experimental Stevens who is far from his prime. On the other hand, it is Sufjan after all, and his innate musical instincts shine through at numerous points in the album.

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