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Randall J. Stephens and Delvyn Case

Hidden Under a Bushel

Sufjan Stevens and the problem of Christian music.

What's your favorite band?" Youth pastors in evangelical churches from Anaheim, California, to Virginia Beach, Virginia, have been asking young people that question since Richard Nixon's famed meeting with Elvis in the Oval Office. Whenever teenagers answered with the Doors, Bon Jovi, Black Sabbath, or Run DMC, religious mentors steered their impressionable charges to sacred analogues: Resurrection Band, Barnabas, Stryper, Freedom of Soul. In the 1980s, popular Christian author J. Brent Bill created a "sounds like" music chart, an easy-to-use guide for those newly initiated into the Christian subculture. (It's the kind of tool Ned Flanders, the kind-hearted fundy on The Simpsons, would love to employ for his two sons, Rod and Todd.)

The relationship between so-called Jesus rock and secular music is as peculiar as it is fascinating. Since the Jesus People movement first swaddled the gospel in the tattered rags of the counterculture, Christian rock has grown steadily, inhabiting almost every niche in the splintered world of contemporary music. You want Christian death metal, Christian rap, Christian indie rock, Christian electronica? You got it. Part of the job of being a youth pastor today rests on being hip to the dozens of massive Christian rock festivals that take place around the country every summer, having a mental map of nearby Christian coffee houses and bookstores, and always being ready to usher teens into the safe world of Christian music.

In 2006, a youth pastor asked for a Christian doppelgänger of brooding English troubadour Nick Drake, doomed indie icon Elliott Smith, or cracked folk rocker Iron and Wine might respond with a single name: Sufjan Stevens. But Stevens is also quite original. While other artists have busied themselves chasing the latest fad, Stevens has crafted a unique, sprawling indie folk that deserves much of the attention it's received. He has also joined the ranks of a handful of other artists and bands—Danielson Familie, Damien Jurado, Pedro the Lion, and Starflyer 59—which have earned respect and critical acclaim almost in spite of rather than because of their Christian faith.

A Michigan native, Stevens was something of a musical prodigy. He attended Michigan's prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, where he honed his skills on the oboe. He attended Hope College in Michigan, formed a band, and started piecing together his slightly outsider compositions with a few other sympathetic souls. From obscurity, Stevens has taken the college rock world by storm. His 2005 CD, Illinois—which occupied the number-one slot on college music charts for weeks in the fall of 2005, and has since received wide acclaim—and its recent companion disc of outtakes, The Avalanche, are part of his staggeringly ambitious project for a state-by-state romp through America. Stevens has done two states so far, the first being Michigan. Each release will be devoted to a single state, intended as a sweeping travelogue, a character study, and a window into Stevens' worldview.

Even a casual listen to Stevens' work reveals his fascination with Christian themes—creation, fall, and redemption. Take for example these lines from one of the tracks on Illinois, "Casimir Pulaski Day," a heart-rending exploration of theodicy (via the story of a friend's death from bone cancer):

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders, and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

Certainly an overtly Christian message is a bitter pill to swallow for the average indie rock fan, but in song after song Stevens is open about his faith. As critical acclaim has mounted, though, he's become much more evasive when questioned about his faith. He routinely brushes aside the matter of his personal beliefs, strategically separating himself from the weird world of contemporary Christian music. He has a "knee-jerk reaction to that kind of [Christian] culture," he quipped in one interview. "Maybe I'm a little more empathetic … because we have similar fundamental beliefs. But culturally and aesthetically, some of it is really embarrassing."1 More bluntly, he has said, "I don't make faith-themed music."2

Stevens seems convinced that to own up to evangelicalism would amount to professional or artistic suicide, and he is probably right. Though Christian culture warriors are put off by his calculated ambiguity, fans and critics are captivated. The high praise he has garnered from The New York Times and Rolling Stone—let alone thousands of fans around the world—may be the direct result of Stevens' willingness to grapple, in a suitably cryptic fashion, with issues of faith. Indeed, the secular music press now views the spiritual component of his work as an asset, best summed up by the Village Voice, which called him "the Next Flannery [O'Connor]."3

In the long run, Stevens may find that his greatest challenge lies in the genre he's chosen. As rock's answer to the song-cycle of the classical tradition, the concept album is a self-consciously "artistic" attempt to forge a large-scale, unified whole out of a succession of autonomous songs. The success of a concept album rests upon its ability to lead the listener on a journey from beginning to end. Like a scene in a film, each individual song must both cohere internally and contribute to the overall experience of the album. This hierarchical view of musical relationships is central to the language of classical music, but it is almost completely absent from rock. Hence, the concept album presents daunting hurdles for rockers of all stripes. The few successful examples in the genre work because the relationships between their constituent songs are as compelling as the individual songs themselves.

This is precisely where Stevens' latest project, Illinois—and its companion The Avalanche—collapses under its own conceptual strain. Despite his skills as a lyricist, his limitations as a musician hinder any over-arching artistic unity. Stevens is in many ways a capable composer. Quite a few of his melodic ideas are fresh, interesting, and distinctive, and his arrangements are meticulously crafted. The trouble is that his creativity is limited to essentially two different song-types: an introverted, folksy one and an extroverted, symphonic one. In short, there is a major disconnect between the subtleties of Sufjan Stevens the poet and Sufjan Stevens the composer. His music lacks the carefully modulated gradations of tone, meaning, and mood that distinguish his poetry.

Great pop musicians use music to provide "color" to their lyrics: to give them a different, sometimes deeper, expressive power than they would have if they were just poems. The best songs are those whose lyrics and music complement each other, making them more than the sum of their constituent parts. In Stevens' albums we hear the same four or five ideas, regardless of the mood or lyrical theme: the twee toy-town march, the ebullient five-beat rhythmic pattern, the melancholic four-chord progression, the nostalgic guitar and banjo duet. Each of these ideas is compelling in itself, but when they are set to so many different lyrics, their energy and appeal are dissipated.

From an artist whose lyrics shout out with such distinctiveness, beauty, and even theological richness, this shortfall is painfully disappointing. Let's hope that as he makes his way through the remaining 48 states, Stevens enriches his musical palette.

Randall J. Stephens is an assistant professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College, associate editor of Historically Speaking, and a member of the indie rock group Jetenderpaul. His book on the holiness and Pentecostal movements in the American South will be published by Harvard University Press.

Delvyn Case is an assistant professor of music at Eastern Nazarene College. A composer, conductor, performer, and scholar, he works within both the classical and popular traditions. He is currently composing an opera inspired by The Canterbury Tales.

1. "Sufjan Stevens," interview by Matt Fink, Delusions of Adequacy. http://adequacy.net/int/sufjan/index.shtml accessed on 11 December 2005.

2. "Sufjan Stevens," interview by Amanda Petrusich, Pitchfork Media (July 2004). www.pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/s/stevens_sufjan-04/ accessed on 11 December 2005.

3. Nick Sylvester, "Without a Prayer," Village Voice (8 August 2005). www.villagevoice.com/music/0532,sylvester,66665,22.html accessed on 12 December 2005.

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