There's a reason why some people throw their lives into indie music - it's because mainstream music tends to offer very few new ideas. Soon, one becomes enraptured in the lush history of bands like Pavement, the Flaming Lips, and even more obscure acts like Oval and nostalgic lost acts like the Flying Machine. Yet, then comes across one artist that just throws everything into perspective all over again.
And Sufjan Stevens does just that.
In the course of 4 short albums, he's proven that he is a new undaunted master of folk music, but transcends convention time and time again. While "Michigan" and "Seven Swans" are both albums of lush, sweet beauty (and depression as well, to be fair), nothing comes to match his powerful, dirty, experimental yet still resoundingly sound debut album, "A Sun Came."
He throws in childish voice-altered interludes here and there (which actually BLATANTLY RECALL those on Beck's "Stereopathic Soul Manure" LP), adding to the odd whimsy of the album. Yes, he does add some blatant throwaway tracks ("Satan's Saxophones" and "Rice Pudding"), which are just experimental instrumental noodling. The interludes aren't all that bad - they use absurdist humor to break up the dramtic flow and serve as well-placed "restart" buttons for the listener. Because sometimes they're needed ...
... simply because you are overwhelmed by the music. Layers upon layers of acoustic guitars, woodwinds, panpipes, and countless other instruments are mixed together in a startling array of melody. Best example of this is "A Winner Needs a Wand" - pianos lead to a dark acoustic melody, which in turn leads to flutes and pipes blaring in during the chorus, a stream of voices near the climax and a near heavy-metal guitar outro - and it all makes sense. The sweet "lost tape" sound of "Happy Birthday" proves to be almost heartbreaking each time you listen. The mostly instrumental "Wordsmith's Ridge" could easily be used for the emotional climax of some unmade film, and the blissfully irrelevant and stupidly fun "Super Sexy Woman" shows that it's not full-on seriousness all the time.
Sufjan gets most interesting when he experiments within the confines of conventional melody. As a matter of fact, "Demetrius" and "The Oracle Said Wander" sound almost EXACTLY like Pavement B-sides. The distorted vocals and propulsive drums of "Jason" create a haunting effect. And, best of all, the song that sounds like NOTHING else on the album (though only available on the re-release) is a little ditty called "Joy! Joy! Joy!" - it's a melodious electro-stomp of a number that's as excitable and state-of-the-art as any dance song out there but still bounded in Sufjan's simple vocals and human warmth.
All of this goes before mentioning his lyrics, which go from absurd to profoundly meaningful in a heartbeat. If you need further proof of his lyrical brilliance, simply listen to "Rake."
Even with the few failed experiments, the seemingly inappropiate humor, and attempts to jump all over the place, this album is in a class by itself - it's a powerful, haunting, infinitely repeatable album that reveals more with each listen. It may be a bit inaccessible at first, but, given time, this can grow to be an all-time favorite.