Here's a summary of nearly all the too-long-didn't-read reviews you'll see of Sufjan Stevens' electro-beat-y new album, The Age of Adz: "He's not doing the state thing anymore. Something about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This album is weird. Where's the banjo?"
Sure, most critics will throw around big words and dance around the weirdness with vague descriptors that make it seem as though they get it (one blogger used his album review to engage in a meta-commentary involving Pulitzer-winning novelist Jonathan Franzen), but in the end, for anyone expecting the quirky spiritual folk that made Stevens a superstar among the NPR/Paste set, they'll see it as a strange 70-plus minutes of music.
Expectations are the worst, right? Stevens has suffered from more than his fair share of unreasonable ones, not just from reviewers but from his most dedicated fans. Releasing two of the most acclaimed albums of the decade in a three-year period would bring a significant amount of pressure already, but Stevens has the added burden of being the cultural voice of an entire liberalized-but-evangelical subsection of Christianity. That group — a group that includes me — has slathered him in anointing oil as he awkwardly tries to wiggle away.
Reviewers caught up in the weirdness miss a big part of the equation, perhaps lacking insight into the broader non-denominational milieu that puts the Detroit-born singer-songwriter's metamorphosis into proper perspective.
And so I offer a brief history of Christian rock: The baby boomers who ran mainstream Christianity for decades called for a retreat from mainstream culture, which is how we ended up with a separate, but not at all equal, music industry. Thinkers like Francis Schaeffer called for Christians to engage the culture, interact with it, and compete on the same level as our unchurched peers, but that sort of thing is hard. So we got DC Talk.
When Christians create culture (or a facsimile thereof) we don't want to think of it as derivative, but rather as competitive with the secular version. It's sort of like those Japanese bands who knock off American acts while their fans squeal about their band's superiority. I've been an apologist, trying to convince skeptical secular music listeners that this or that Christian band is just as good as the acts on the radio, if not better. We desperately want our artists to be taken seriously by tastemakers, which is usually a losing battle.
We had a taste of sweet success before Stevens. Not from Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, of course, but from generally praised Tooth and Nail artists like punk act MxPx and shoegazers Starflyer 59. Oh, and there was Stevens' immediate Christian weirdo predecessor, Danielson. But it's not as if Pitchfork was stumbling over itself to fete Plankeye or Sixpence None the Richer. Pedro the Lion's David Bazan came close, but he wasn't quite Christian enough. He had all that pesky doubt, darkness, and a jug of liquor by his side. We always figured he was going to go Judas on us. Eventually, he pretty much did, writing (a great) album about discarding his faith.
Enter Stevens, soon followed by huge expectations.
It's not as though the affection didn't make sense. Sufjan's lyrics on his two state-themed albums and the one falling between them (Seven Swans) featured bursts of Christian theology along with an awkward sort of coolness that wasn't too intimidating. Seven Swans seemed almost like a gift to Christians, with references to Christian literary fave Flannery O'Connor and a stack of Bible verses. It was easy to get totally psyched for a song like "The Transfiguration," a direct retelling of Matthew 17, and ending with a chorus singing "Lost in the cloud, a voice: Lamb of God! We draw near! Lost in the cloud, a sign: Son of man! Son of God!"
Pitchfork still gave the album an 8.1.
Even if Stevens didn't give us the validation of our belief system that we wanted, he was out there winning in a secular music world. It's as though it was a new era, one in which Christians could be taken seriously — not just as artists but in the intellectual marketplace as well.
So, when I read a joke somewhere that there was a sect of American Christianity called Sufjanelicals, I grimaced more than laughed. I saw the pastor of my mother's church at Stevens' most recent show at the Marquee. Paste, the recently deceased semi-secular magazine, named Illinoise the album of the past decade and Stevens one of the best songwriters alive, in the company of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. A recent book on Christian hipsters devotes a significant amount of space focused on Stevens as the archetypical Christian hipster artist. There are a bunch of churches out there founded by traditional conservative denominations (yet supposed to be cooler) still offering the same old dogma. Stevens' albums often provided their pre-service soundtrack and were a frequent topic of coffeehouse conversation.
When Stevens began hinting that he may quit music altogether, it was more disappointing than surprising. Who should have to deal with all that weight? When he told the Irish Times that he "felt burdened by the conceptual weight of my previous [state-themed] records," perhaps he meant that the idea of writing an album about, say, Nevada was too much to bear, but it seems he might've meant that his music always had to mean something now. His first two albums (released in 2000 and 2001) were often strange, and they certainly weren't analyzed to the point where every line was scrutinized. Once Michigan came out in 2003, it was a completely different story.
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.
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.