Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sufjan Stevens channels Radiohead

It is always interesting to see how artists respond to fame. Some embrace the fame and seek to replicate the sound that got them to whatever plateau they find themselves at. Others run and hide behind a creative veil as they try to deal with the repercussions of people singing their songs in commercials. Whatever the response it is a fascinating study to see creative people respond to connecting with people and essentially getting what they want out of art.

Make no mistake, all musicians want to be famous. The ones that say they don't are lying. If they didn't want people to hear they music they wouldn't record and package it and then tour all over hell's half acre getting people to hear them. What does this have to do with Sufjan Stevens? Well, he is the latest of these "true musicians" to grapple with this conundrum. His last record, "Illinois", was a commercial and critical hit (rivaling the ascent of ARCADE FIRE as the lead for a voice of a generation tag). So it was always going to be a hard follow. Here we are now some 5 years later with "The Age of Adz" and their are going to be more than a few comparisons to the path taken by RADIOHEAD in their response to fame.

Let me elaborate. Following the success of "OK Computer" many thought Radiohead would simply reproduce that sound over and climb to the heap of Alternative rock and be the biggest rock band on the planet. However, their follow up, "Kid A", was a challenge to their fan base as they explored new elements of their sound and tried to expand it artistically. What followed was a lot of hand wringing by mainstream media about whether to call it a masterpiece or a piece of unitelligble garbage. In hindsight, my sense was that the band simply wasn't prepared for the widespread fame and tried to make a record that would appeal to only the hardcore fans. Which is partially what I feel Stevens is doing here.

There is nothing on the new album as catchy as "Chicago". Putting that thought aside the record is certainly a departure from his more accessible work. Based on the work of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, the record is a smattering of baroque pop songs filtered through bass thumps, electronic fits and starts and orchestral flourishes. It does resemble Radiohead's Kid A in that sense. The songs seem almost like collective ideas rather than pop songs. It challenges the listener to weed through the songs to find the nuggets of melody and snippets of poetry.

Which makes me wonder, what is the point of this exercise? Should I have to work so hard to find enjoyment? Do I have a right to expect something from an artist or am I just to accept what they have given me and make the best of it? Is the satisfaction I get from "I Walked" worth the near unlistenable "Now That I'm Older"? And what the hell do I do with the 25 minutes that make up "Impossible Soul"? (And who has the time to listen to it in it's entirety?) Stevens seeks to confound our beliefs about him with this record and strip his fan base to the core. The question I cannot seem to answer is was I one that he wanted to keep or not?

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