Sufjan Stevens' Debut Album Isn't Quite The Joy I Was Expecting
Oct 7, 2009
Pros: Stevens is immensely talented, some mature songwriting, and superb songs...
Cons: ...the album, as a whole, is incredibly inconsistent and far too long
The Bottom Line: A Sun Came is an interesting album, to say the least. (3.5 stars, rounded up because I like Stevens).
I'm pretty much obsessed with Sufjan Stevens. I bought his album, Come On! Feel The Illinoise back in '06, or so, in fell in love with him then. He's somewhat of a musical genius- his songwriting ability is stunning, and the fact that he writes, produces, and even plays most of the instruments on his albums is amazing to me. He's a talent to behold, that's certain.
Stevens' first release was in 2000, with A Sun Came! As he began to release more albums, the disc which had been independently distributed originally, became more in demand and Stevens' label, Asthmatic Kitty, rereleased it for the masses in 2004.
The album sees an exploration of several cultures and sounds (Stevens plays 14 instruments himself throughout the album), and is a bit different from Stevens' other works (especially his 50 states project). It's a mixed bag, really; some of the songs are genuine and honest, like pages ripped from Stevens' own diary, while some just seem like winded odes to his own musicianship.
We Are What You Say is such a song. The album's opener immediately sounds different from what you'd normally expect to hear from Stevens- the pan flutes being played in the background gives the song a Middle-Eastern feel. Even though the album was remastered, the quality is still pretty lo-fi; it's somewhat hard to discern the lyrics. Stevens sings in his trademark falsetto, and sounds nice enough, but a few minutes into the song and all vocals are faded out to make way for a very long flute interlude. It's definitely a nice sound, but the song is nearly six minutes long and seems a bit unnecessary.
The same could be said of the next track, A Winner Needs A Wand. Again, less emphasis is put on the lyrics or vocals, and instead on the orchestration. The songs starts off quietly, but by the chorus, the pan flute returns. The song goes on for another six minutes; again dragged out by a long instrumental section. Both songs are nice enough, but hearing them back to back right at the beginning of the album is slightly disappointing. The combination of the two songs really make me wonder how much Stevens was focused on writing good songs, or if he was really more interested in showing of f his skills as an instrumentalist.
Luckily, Rake appears next and is the album's first saving grace. Musically, the song simply features a sad-sounding acoustic guitar. Stevens' vocals are distorted with an echo effect, but are still clearer than they are in the previous songs. The thing most remarkable about this track, however, is that it's the first Stevens' song I've ever really heard (save some of the tracks that appear later on this album) that's a pure love song. He visits the topic of seeking comfort and strength from a significant other ("We ran into a safe/When the walls came closer/She turned into a cave/Where it turned colder/You are the rock/You are the rake/You are the one when I watch myself"), and the sentiment is so genuine and honest, that it makes me love him a little bit more.
Another love song appears with Dumb I Sound. Musically, the song is quite eerie- the piano and sitar give off a creepy sort of vibe that gives me the chills. Drums kick in towards the middle of the song, as the climax builds. The sound does go along with the lyrical content, however, as Stevens signs about the unfortunate end of a relationship ("But you love someone else/But you want to be with someone else/And I can't believe how dumb I sound/And I will put my face over the ground/And love you"). His delivery is passionate and appropriately broken, raw, and well...human.
Perhaps my favorite song on the album is A Loverless Bed (Without Remission). Sparse piano and a heavy drum loop make up the song, which begins pretty basic, musically. The lyrics are simply exquisite, however, ("Cannot keep you in my bed again/Wake up every time, leave your space again/When the hairline breaks and lends you in/To the woman you've turned red again") and the songwriting is some of the most mature on the album. Being a fan of Stevens' originally based on his 50 States albums definitely didn't prepare me for this disc. I'd gotten used to Stevens' songs being more about historical instances, society as a whole, and sometimes- sometimes, sentimental things like relationships, but even then, such topics are covered few and far between. This album definitely shows a different side of Stevens as both a songwriter and a person; he conveys love and losses in a relationship thoroughly this time around in ways he never has before.
Anyway, going back to the song- it ends kind of oddly, with an electric guitar solo creating chaos among what started off as a simplistic song. As odd as it is, the transition actually fits; going along with that chaotic, frantic feeling one gets when a relationship is slipping away and out of your hands. The track is easily one of the best on the album.
A side of Stevens that I was quite familiar with was his sense of humor. This is explored for the first time on this album with Super Sexy Woman, a silly song that made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it. Stevens' sings the song in a quirky tone, proving that he realizes just how silly and immature the song is ("She is super duper smart/I like her for her mind/She'll shoot a super fart/The deadly silent kind/She's got superhuman lips, for super suction/She's got superpower hips, for super reproduction"). Sure, the song is no Casimir Pulaski Day, but it's a fun, lighthearted tune, that reminds you that Stevens was only 25 when the album was written. Happy Birthday is not the traditional birthday song, but instead, a pretty, albeit strange, ballad. The piano and Stevens' vocals are lovely together, but I can never quite figure out the meaning of this song. The lyrics are as elusive as ever ("Yours will number, yours will be/A paragon, a Paraclete/Keep your bed warm, keep your humor/Keep your proverbs short and sweet"), and my best guess is that Stevens' is perhaps singing to a friend who is feeling down ("I'm sorry, I'm sorry/That life is anxious, life is mean/I'm sorry, I'm sorry/A pair of shoes is what you need"). I've seen fans interpret the song in many different ways- from it being about Jesus (Stevens' is a self-proclaimed Christian, and often writes about religious topics and many of his songs have religions themes and elements. He also released a Christian music album), to a friend's birthday, to a bad breakup. Perhaps we'll never know the meaning that Stevens' had when he wrote the song, but at any rate, it's a beautiful little number.
Kill is a surprisingly violent song, disguised by hushed vocals and quiet acoustic guitar. The chorus simply consists of the words, "I want to kill him, I want to cut his brain. And when it's over, I know I'll feel okay." Stevens' often takes on the roles of characters in his songs, and I'm sure this is one such circumstance; still, the lyrics are a bit confusing to me- the anger is never explained nor is it expressed in a way that you feel compassion or empathy with the narrator- instead, you're just presented with an off-putting song about wanting to kill someone.
The rest of the album is a wash. It seems that for every stellar, stand-out track, there's an equally misplaced, lifeless one. Rice Pudding is a fairly upbeat song that sounds like something from the 70's but is definitely not anything worth listening to, really. The Oracle Said Wonder sounds like a rip off of Loverless Bed, but without the depth or emotion. Jason and Demetrius both sound like something from the grunge-rock era of the 90's and while they're likeable enough, they mostly end up being pointless and a waste of space on the album. Ya Leil is another long-winded, almost completely instrumental track that sounds like an extra from the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack. Satan's Saxophones is just a track of a bunch of saxophones playing together at the same time. The sound is so loud and dissonant that I have a hard time listening to it at all.
And then there are the horrible, weird interludes. The first one is Siamese Twins, which appears between Rake and Demetrius. Stevens' voice has some sort of high-pitched helium affect added to it, and if the sound wasn't annoying enough, the content of the interlude is just as banal and insipid.
"My sister had two babies at one time, they were Siamese twins, no they were actually, they were connected at the head, at the head, and the doctor cut them apart, and my sister said, 'I have two kids now, look at me.'", Stevens speaks. That's the entire interlude. It's not funny, has no relevance to the rest of the album or the songs around it, and is a complete waste of time. There are four other such interludes on the album, and I have no idea why he created them, much less included them on the album. In a way, it kind of cheapens the disc's overall value, though I suppose you can just skip over them like I do. I've never been a fan of interludes on albums, anyway, but I truly do hate these ones.
This rereleased version of the album (which is likely the same version you'll have- the original album is very rare nowadays) includes two bonus songs- Joy! Joy! Joy! and You Are The Rake. The first of the two is an electric song, sounding more like the tracks on Stevens' electronica album, Enjoy Your Rabbit. It's a nice enough song, but nothing incredibly awe-inspiring.
You Are The Rake is a reworking of Rake; a stripped down version (no echoing effects), which banjo and backup singers whom sing with Stevens during the chorus. Fans have been debating over which version is better, and I can't really choose offhand, though I guess, if hard pressed, I'd chose the original version. I do like this reworking, however; both songs are nice for different moods...the original Rake is more melancholy, while this version is more uplifting and triumphant.
Sufjan Stevens' first album, A Sun Came! is quite a mixed bag. At times, honest and emotional, and at times tedious and uninteresting. The album's length (21 tracks, including those horrible interludes) is also a problem for me- some of the tracks and interludes could've been cut out and the album would've been much more cohesive. Anyway, Stevens' talent is made apparent in this album, and the strong songs are some of Stevens' best in his career, so that makes the album worth owning alone.
Track Listing 1. We Are What You Say 2. A Winner Needs a Wand 3. Rake 4. Siamese Twins 5. Demetrius 6. Dumb I Sound 7. Wordsworth's Ridge 8. Belly Button 9. Rice Pudding 10. A Loverless Bed (Without Remission) 11. Godzuki 12. Super Sexy Woman 13.The Oracle Said Wander 14. Happy Birthday 15. Jason 16. Kill 17. Ya Leil 18.A Sun Came 19. Satan's Saxophones 20. Joy! Joy! Joy! - (bonus tracks) 21. You Are the Rake - (bonus tracks)