Somewhat predictably, a friend of mine who works at a church commented on Facebook about The Age of Adz's "I Want to Be Well," which repeats, as he wrote it, "the f-word almost 20 times." To my friend's credit, he didn't outwardly express an opinion, either positive or negative, but there's just a sense of disappointment with most Christian reviews of the new material. One commenter summed it up by replying, "Jeez. What happened there?" Did we do something wrong? Was it something we said? Did Stevens resign from our ambassadorship position while we weren't looking?

Worst of all is a review in Revelant, the printed voice of Christianity's faux-cultural revolution. The review ended with a paragraph imploring Stevens to "stop feeling that you have to impress us with 'innovation' . . . And for goodness' sake, bring the banjo back out of the closet. You can have your sanity back, and we can have our Sufjan back. Trust me. It'll be better for all of us." Other than being something that the reviewer, John Taylor, will look back on and be ashamed of writing someday when his writing career is over (hopefully soon), the review probably says what a lot of churchgoers are probably already thinking but don't want to admit. Reading that review, one can almost hear the stifling sound of art dying at Relevant.

That's why my subculture of 20- and 30-something Christians don't really deserve to claim Stevens as one of our own anyway. We liked his music because it was sometimes more cute than challenging, and we could say we were thinking about culture and engaging with it when he made high-minded references. He was a cipher who didn't ask much from us. Now that Stevens sounds more confused and unsure, we might have to ask ourselves the same questions he's asking himself. Maybe this is Stevens finding his sanity. Maybe what we call sanity doesn't have much value to him anymore.

Sufjan Stevens: Alienating his diehard Christian fans with an edgy new album.
Marzuki stevens
Sufjan Stevens: Alienating his diehard Christian fans with an edgy new album.

To do something really great, to make real art, Stevens had to leave the anchor of Christian expectation behind. The Age of Adz may not be the great work that will eventually result, but it's a start. We should probably hope his next album makes even less immediate sense. Maybe even that the banjo disappears completely. Stevens deserves better than his Christian fans, this writer included.

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19 comments
saio
saio

This article is fantastic. I'm not religious whatsoever, but I love Sufjan - his early works, his greatest achievements, seven swans, everything. Age of Adz blows everything out of the water though. I was very, pleasantly surprised and I am glad he is experimenting with his sound. He's a great folk artist, but hes an absolutely kickass electronic artist (apparently.)

SireEdwinDrake
SireEdwinDrake

Its sad that a curse word undermines an entire theological philosophy. Maybe thats the point. Maybe the point is that god doesn't give a shit about us swearing. Being facetious of course. But the point remains. Christianity isn't about holing up somewhere under the lord's almighty shelter. Its about stepping out and engaging culture and those around us and trusting that we can make mistakes and weather our own weaknesses because of the almighty shelter. And let's weigh the pros and cons of Sufjan swearing. Cons he alienates some staunch christian fans who are in very little danger of falling away from christ. Pros he opens himself up to an entire subculture of individuals who dont know christ and who will see him as an approachable christian, someone they identify with. Sufjan isnt writing for christians, nor should he be. Christians have jesus to be fans of and to derive encouragement from, and the model is supposed to work out with nonchristians having us to be fans of and derive comfort from, and the hope is that they will see christ's love through that.

I am in pain because I am human. I am frustrated because I am human. I am imperfect because I am human. Suffering, ignorant, infirm, abused, all because I am human. I am not above all that but hey, wait. Get to know me, and be loved by me, and feel the grace of someone who is. People are being touched by this specific song. Just read the comments on youtube, or some lyric sites. Its sad that some christians cant realize this and see this as an opportunity instead of being depressed and moping about it.

and as for the musical quality, he's just experimenting, and why not? he clearly knows how to play instruments, he clearly knows how to structure songs. It would be much worse artistically if he was satisfied with that. But, like it or not, technology marches on and does what it does best, i.e. lessening the relative amount of time and energy necessary to produce the same results as before. That can allow people who would never have been able to before to have inroads into musical production (could be good or bad depending on the quality of music produced). It can lessen the amount of talent necessary to produce music (probably not a good thing overall). Or it can become a tool instead of an excuse, and instead of expending less effort for the same results, artists can expend the same effort as they expended before the technological advances and innovate the industry, take it to another level. Sufjan is experimenting, he's trying to reconcile his music with technology in a meaningful way. Very mature approach. Good for him.

Transom
Transom

I don't really understand what that means. The last sentence, that is.

I'm a Christian.I love AdzI like Relevant (given I haven't had too long of a history with it and didn't read the Adz review, except the bit you discussed. I realized you weren't dissing relevant as much as the author, but...)You should read this http://www.relevantmagazine.co...

Scott Hekman
Scott Hekman

P.S. I will say it's crazy to think people don't care about the content of the art they enjoy. And even to have a preference for a specific artist's content. Like how I prefer Clint Eastwood being a western movie hero, or Heath Ledger a villain, etc. I don't think that makes me a jerk just because I have a preference for the kind of content a given artist has dabbled in.

Scott Hekman
Scott Hekman

J-Mac - are you my identical twin lost at birth? Seriously you and I are about 95% similar artistically and doctrinally (SXSW lover + Calvinist/Reformed believer). Am thankful to hear there are others out there.

Good article. Just bought this album and so far feel indifferent about it - where I loved Illinoise and Seven Swans. I do admit I'm probably putting unfair weight on the man and probably allowing my expectation of some grand theological revelation to come forth through one of the tracks. It is for this reason most likely I'm as guilty as the gentleman from Relevant being chided in the piece above. However, before taking my 40 lashes from the author of this piece, I will say that it is in our DNA as humans to have champions that we identify with and I don't think that's a bad thing (when not done to an extreme level). It's why fans of Tom Brady, Barack Obama and yeah, probably even the lead singer of Puddle of Mud (if there still are any) get offended when people make fun of their heroes. They have identified with them and feel personally assaulted when they get made fun of, or betrayed when their heroes act outside of their expectation of who they are. Not excusing, just providing a bit of another perspective. It's easy to be a reductionist and say "how dare you put your hero in a box!" to those have placed expectations on a celebrity. But it would be hypocritical and equally wrong to group all "those who don't like this album and are Christians".

Rigard
Rigard

I just finished a meditation session (aka. I just finished listening to the entirety of the Age of Adz) and tears are rolling down my cheeks.

Its understandable that many who enjoy the soft, independent, folky style Stevens usually produces might not appreciate this more electronic type of music. But as someone who appreciates both and has been listening to and involved in the electronic/techno scene since the early 80s I find this album to be absolutely brilliant and quite beautiful.

I am a believer and follower of Jesus Christ and his teachings and I have found nothing on this album to theorize that Stevens would be anything but that himself.

Electronic is a not a easy genre to produce. Playing a guitar is 1000 times "easier" than the difficulties that come from mixing and layering beats. This album has a lot of love, dedication, and imagination.

Suf_fan
Suf_fan

The Age of Adz and All Delighted People have so much beauty in them for both Christians and 'heathens' alike. The Age of Adz doesnt have as many overt references to Christianity but thats the beauty of his music. I'm in love with the man not only because he can incorporate his faith in his art in the most unobtrusive manner but also, simply because he's a brilliant soul-searing artist! The fact that its open to interpretation. Admitted most of his song refer to Royal Robertson but I for one feel that his song 'i want to be well' and 'get real' can be read as his personal spiritual struggles (An interesting perspective: http://bighollywood.breitbart..... Yes, I agree he's trying to escape the labels his fans (Christians as well as the-banjo-loving ones) are trying to give him. But thats what makes his art so much more exciting. So don't despair!

KirkB
KirkB

It's a real shame that this guy is a Christian. It makes me like him so much less...

J-Mac
J-Mac

Mr. Dan Gibson....You have just eloquently summed up (for the most part) the issues with the assumptions of faith and art. I for one am a Christian....and not the liberal/emergent type in which many Christians (perhaps even yourself) would descibe themselves as today....I am a 30 year old reformed calvinist (if you wanna get technical with it)...so I DO find issue with "Christian ambiguity for the sake of art".....but, I honestly do not take much issue with what Sufjan has done here. Unfortunately, Mr. Stevens has been adopted into the what I call "He's ours, not the World's" club. This has been unfortunate for Sufjan, but I do feel as if he set himself up for this...thus causing this "rebellion" (if you can call it that) to show that he isnt in our little club. And for that I say, FANTASTIC! Its about time that he reveal what and who he is....a frustrated artist....not an all enlightened Christian....I appreciate that honesty (and somehone always knew that was who he was, an artist first) and that's why I've enjoyed his music for years now.

Kaytress
Kaytress

Its so good! It's all I want to listen to lately!

Connor
Connor

Fantastic article, and very well-written at that. For all of the hate/snickering spewed by New Times towards Christianity (and for some reason, ska. Why do you do this, you supposedly "alternative, open-minded" weekly?), this is a great assessment of Sufjan's place within spirituality/religion. Although I really don't like his new album (I hate electro music), I do admire his ability to step out of the norm to create something meaningful for him.Also, thank you so much for bringing up both David Bazan and Starflyer 59--both fantastic artists making challenging music. However, why do no secular sources ever give any love to mewithoutYou? Aaron Weiss knows his stuff.

henri
henri

most people i know who are into Sufjan's music don't really have much inclination about his faith at all or couldn't care. The small church I attend which attracts alot of artistic types/don't even involve him in their conversation about music, because they simply don't like his music. I, myself liked his music before I realized his spiritual bent. A Christian subculture will of course try to co-opt whatever latest trends exist, desperately trying to be 'relevant'. Sufjan has achieved the level of success that he has simply because he makes superb music/plain and simple. He's making music and art that cannot be ignored. He could be singing about almost anything and his appeal would still be the same I imagine.

Howie
Howie

Every Christian (or spritual person for that matter) should be constantly questioning their faith. Age of Adz goes into what more traditional Christians would cry as extremes, but I find comfort in knowing that Sufjan is an artist that is seeking to know God, whether the God is Jesus Christ, a keyboard Allah, or if it's a cosmic cartoony robot. I will never fully know his means of discovery, but he admits to us that he is constantly seeking and searching, within himself, and outside, about God, love, and relationships, which is more than I can say for most of the people in my church.

Todd
Todd

I wish you would focus on his music and quit projecting your beliefs onto him. Sufjan has never stated that he is officially part of certain church and even stated that he does not make Christian music. First and foremost he is an amazing story teller. "Seven Swans" deals a lot with his childhood and growing up in diverse religious settings.Yet, he also write songs about serial killers(and how he is really not that much different from a John Wayne Gacy). And songs about trying to pray to cure someone's cancer, and the prayer failing to work.Sufjan displays an amazing ability to stand out and see through everyone's perspective not just his. I wish you could actually write an article that didn't thrust your beliefs and religious expectations on him.

mmf
mmf

Before you say Sufjan is going down the same road Bazan went, you should read his recent interview with The Quietus:http://thequietus.com/articles...

Seems like his faith is still quite in tact.

Jeremiah
Jeremiah

Props for mentioning Starflyer 59 as one of the creative Christian bands out there, they are and have been my favorite band for a very long time. I am a Christian but I feel it's sad that many Christians will dismiss this album simply because he drops the F-Bomb, they will miss out on some very creative lyrics and a intelligent message. I usually enjoy Relevants reviews, hadn't see the one for Age of Adz yet, now I don't think I wan to.

Deadrose646
Deadrose646

I'm completely agnostic, but I must admit that I owe you a "thank you" on two accounts... For enlightening me on a point of view I can never truly understand and reminding me how much I love this band even with all the Christian undertones...

galac
galac

Thanks for posting this. I've been following the reviews of the album and concerts and really wanted to hear from a Christian's perspective. I do agree that we pigeonholed him and, as the phenomenal musical craftsman that he is, it is unfair and detrimental.

I think this album is challenging for people of the faith on many levels. I didn't mind the cursing on "I Want to Be Well" (although I think he has yet to put it on any setlist so far if it makes you feel better). I think that what I have more difficulty with are the themes of the record and his overly flamboyant performance which features a lot of bizarre dancing and - dare I say it- costumes that almost look like drag. At Massey Hall he even referred to himself as a "queen."

I love Sufjan for who he is - taking him at face value, recognizing the power in his voice and music. However, I don't believe in idolizing him as the "answer" to all of our Christian cultural perils, especially when he seems to be going down the same road David Bazan went.

I think that's the problem with art, music and the like. We put worldly pressures on these people to exalt our spiritual inclinations. It doesn't work and never will.

Elisha
Elisha

I agree that the way the Christian community pigeonholed him was unfair. I am a Christian myself and while I don't condone it, I feel that the swearing in 'I Want to Be Well' was his honest expression of intense struggle. There's arguably more articulate ways to express oneself, but I dont think the point was to be articulate.

But really- what is this, Puritanical Boston circa 1650? "Bizarre dancing"? Sufjan's no Fred Astaire but his dancing definitely isn't explicitely "flamboyant". Wearing a neon visor, sunglasses and tinsel ponytail is pretty weird, but it's hardly drag! And I could be wrong, but I think you're referencing when Sufjan said he was a "drama queen". This is a common phrase in modern America.

I don't personally know Sufjan, so I have no idea if he's gay or straight. But my point is that we shouldn't be judging people's hearts based on things that aren't even blatantly wrong. Let the guy make his music. He's a human being- God knows his heart.

 
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