The first time I heard Sufjan Stevens I was in a car in Minnesota, and we were driving through a White Castle at 1 a.m., and my friend reached over and pulled Michigan out of his glove box. We sat in the parking lot listening to the album, eating the burgers, and I remember, for the most part, being unimpressed with both. Being bored, even. Being young. My friend dropped me off at the Holiday Inn and I never saw him again.
The second time was in the parking lot of the local community college, a friend’s Nissan, Christmas time — an even less impressing experience than the first.
These were false starts, though: a looking back through a photo album and seeing your spouse in the background. You had no idea what it would become. It wasn’t for another year that I would become obsessed with the man.
My two friends and I were living in a small village in Ghana where everyone shared a single computer and the children didn’t go to school. Our beds were yellow blocks of foam, infested with bed bugs. At night the power shut off and we laid in the perfectly still air waiting for the beads of sweat to slide down our temples. And it was on those nights that I would dig out my iPod, hide its blue glow beneath my pillow, and listen to Sufjan Stevens until the sun came up. Even now the opening chords of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” make my skin crawl.
It was a bad summer. We were young and didn’t know what we were doing or what we wanted. We woke up early and drank coffee on the porch, counting the days and then counting the weeks and then counting the months. I listened to Sufjan Stevens while doing my laundry, while cooking our dinner, while washing the dishes. I listened to him in the mornings while the dew was still hovering just off the ground. I listened until the songs became part of me, absorbed. When my friend got malaria, I laid in the extra hospital bed with one earphone in, staring out the third floor window of our third world hospital, wondering what the hell we were doing in Africa.
A certain literary quality of Illinois: It does whatever the fuck it wants. A friend once called Sufjan self-indulgent. Yes, Yes, I said, exactly — the very thing I love about him. At one of his shows, he wore eight-foot-wide cardboard wings.
When I got back from Africa, I went about consuming Sufjan’s catalog in an entirely unsystematic and ravenous sort of way, my listening as indulgent as the songs themselves. I went from Illinois to Michigan to Seven Swans to The Avalanche then on to A Sun Came, The BQE, Enjoy Your Rabbit before finally settling into the various bootlegs and live performances that have made their way around the Internet and finally into the hands of my friend Ryan who, after some coercing, gave them all to me. All told, just ungodly amounts of music. Which isn’t just an interesting aspect of Sufjan’s work — his prolificacy — but an essential element of his myth. This is the guy who promised us an album for every state, a project that — even at one album per year — would have taken him well into his 70s. And while that project was finally admitted a stunt, we all still want to believe Sufjan will never — could never — run out of material. We want to believe he has stacks of notebooks, piles of four-track demos, several unpublished novels. We want to believe the man is endless. And when I say “we,” I of course mean “me.”
When Age of Adz was being released, I was working at my first ad agency, three years out of Africa and still directionless, still fumbling around, still confused (much like I am at this very moment). So the rumors that this album was going to be something new, something experimental, something completely different, scared me not just for Sufjan but for myself. I needed, for whatever reason, everything he did to be brilliant. I needed this one stability, this one comfort. This was back when I had no confidence in myself whatsoever (a fact that hasn’t changed) and I knew — somehow I knew — that if Sufjan’s new album sucked, that I sucked, too.
The danger of living vicariously is that you can die vicariously, as well.
I’ve always worried I was a fraud, but I thought if I could surround myself with enough authentic things (authentic people, authentic books, authentic music) I could save myself from being exposed. All this time, ever since that bed-bugged bed in Africa, I’ve just been propping myself up.
I was eventually fired from my first agency, eventually went to work for a start-up, eventually went out of business, eventually went unemployed, eventually got hired at another agency, eventually stared at my ceiling until late into the night worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with a new tag line for Sunkist soda (I wouldn’t). And in the end it turned out I was a fake, a fraud, but Sufjan wasn’t. Age of Adz is by far my favorite album: something risky, something new, something completely different. A reminder, maybe, that the only way to stave off oblivion is being willing to destroy everything we thought we were supposed to be. What I like about Sufjan is that he does his work entirely, completely, unapologetically — if he’s X, he’s X spectacularly so (eight-foot cardboard wings). And I wonder if the mistake isn’t being lost but being afraid, being timid, being indecisive. Sin boldly, someone said. Or, like Sufjan: I’m not fucking around.
Or, I don’t know, something like that.
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Photo by Joe Lencioni [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.