Sufjan Stevens contains multitudes: soft-spoken acoustic troubadour, electronic experimentalist, and esteemed costume tailor describe just a few of his roles. (And yes, those cheerleader outfits from Illinois’ promotional materials were stitched by the same hands that scored the strings accompaniment on “Chicago.”) But aside from bearing a striking resemblance to Paul Rudd and exercising musical skills that could be described as prodigal with marginal hyperbole, Stevens’ message was equally significant. He effuses the everyman American journey and domestic perseverance. In that aspect, he remains the closest our generation will ever come to iconic naturalist and rustic ambassador Walt Whitman.
The 19th-century poet, recognized most for his Leaves of Grass collection, celebrated humanity at its most populist and least extravagant, lauding the no-collar heroes of the working class. Mechanics, carpenters, shoemakers, and seamstresses embodied a swelling, ground-level romanticism, with no greater battle hymn than “I Hear America Singing.” The poem describes one profession per line with the carpenter “singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work.” It’s plain-spoken adoration of a plain-spoken class that’s almost dissolved from the fabric of society.
There’s no degree of irony that the one-stanza poem ends with the line “Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs,” as Stevens’ work—especially his truncated one-album-per-state project, and his latest, Carrie & Lowell —trumpets that same salt-of-the-earth love. Stevens additionally incorporates the historical footnotes of inventors, serial killers, and various religious figures, compiling a social studies text book of sepia-toned narratives. In the midst of this swirling nexus of history lies Stevens’ own story. Take the opening lines from marquee track “Say yes! To M!ch!gan!”
Demonstrate I was
raised from the start
By a priest and
the maid on the part.
Still know what
to wear on my back:
If I ever meant to go away
I was raised, I was raised
In the place, in the place.
Still I often think of going back
To the farms, to the farms
Golden arms, golden arms
start to remind me.
The lyrics are obviously autobiographical; Stevens was raised in the Great Lakes haven of Petoskey, Michigan (his frequent collaborator Shara Worden grew up 4 hours away in Ypsilanti) before moving to Brooklyn, where he remains today. And that contrast between one of the biggest metropolises on earth and the farms and priests and maids echoes throughout his catalogue. Instead of Whitman’s hallowed craftsman, Stevens advocates the unemployed and underpaid of Flint, Michigan. He even released an EP called “All Delighted People,” reaffirming the masses past casual praise with the lyrics “Oh! I love you a lot! Oh! I love you from the top of my heart!” That’s street-level devotion.
I couldn’t stop thinking of this dynamic when I photographed Stevens, Worden and their accompanying orchestra in a very empty Brooklyn Academy of Music as they rehearsed a full set. I had recently fled my own Midwestern haven of Columbus, Ohio to New York for a job with WebMD. I rented a room in Williamsburg when it was still possible for journalists to do so; I was also still freelancing for Paste Magazine after a recent internship, hence this specific assignment. Stevens was on the verge of introducing The BQE, a symphony, short film, and hula-hoop demonstration commissioned to celebrate the development of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (another example of blue-collar glory). I witnessed it all—the symphony and a full concert performance of his previous album material—darting from the balconies to the stages of the massive amphitheater. It was fucking crazy and I doubt anything remotely similar will ever occur again.
Unlike Sufjan, I eventually moved back to the metaphysical farms and golden arms that Stevens perpetually romanticizes. Unfortunately, those homestead attractions are far more desirable when you’re not suspended in their inactivity. And you certainly can’t photograph Sufjan Stevens performing the “Majesty Snowbird” in an empty concert hall.