Sunday, November 29, 2009

An Honest Look at Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, Almost 5 Years After the Fact

It's now been almost five years since Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, now considered to be a classic. In fact, Paste Magazine just named it the best album of the decade. I have to admit, I bristled when I got to the end of the list and saw it at number one. "WHY??" you may ask! In fact, you may be one of the many who instantly hailed the record as genius when it was released back in 2005. I was not necessarily one of those people, and I'll try and explain why.

In my adult life, I've never seen such a large number of my artistically oriented friends all stand up at once and hail a piece of work the way I did when Illinois was released, and to be honest, it really wigged me out. The number one way to make me cynical about something is to universally praise it, and even though I bought the record, listened to it several times, and chose every time I thinned out my collection to KEEP it, I claimed (primarily to myself) that there was just no way it was as good as everybody said/thought it was. I maintained this position for the last 4 years. I think, also, that I perceived a certain link between Stevens' music and a shift in the overall musical zeitgeist, and (as has been the case with multiple shifts like this in the last 10-12 years) could not help but notice that, once again, the shift was in a direction that did not have much in common with my own creative vision for Dr. Pants, Weird Files, etc. (Frustrating.) Also, I perceived many of those who adopted this record as a vision beyond visions to be of a somewhat "cooler-than-thou" attitude about the whole thing, and that soured me even more (more about that in a minute).

Now, however, I find it to be time to reassess. Best album of the decade? Better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Better than Kid A? I don't have a definitive answer for that, especially since the amount of attention I really & truly gave to Illinois during the year after its release can quite possibly be construed as negligible at this point. So, after listening again, here are my thoughts:

It's no wonder people went wild over this record. So rarely (especially at the time) does someone in the milieu of "indie rock" actually create something so compositionally spectacular, with such amazing detail, arrangement-wise. The guy has an amazing command of music, and obviously knows a shitload more about arranging and theory than most of his listeners, I bet. Couple this with a lyrical sensibility that is all at once confessional and quirky, and you've got every hipster in the USA drooling on to his Radiohead t-shirt (add in the fact that Mr. Stevens is a Christian, and you've got every Christian hipster drooling all over his Pedro the Lion t-shirt as well. Sorry if that seems condescending. I wouldn't say it if it weren't kind of true). The problem with this is that any time all the uber-hip people stand up and point to something and scream "THAT'S COOL", many others (including me) will feel like this something has been co-opted, and not want anything to do with it anymore. I feel like this because I am not a hipster, and I feel looked down upon by hipsters. I feel perceived as someone who will "never be cool enough to really GET how COOL this something is". Because I'm a geek. My grid for appreciating things is different, and is more intellectual than just a streamlined, "zero in on the essence of cool" kind of approach. I kind of don't care how cool it is. I just want to know if it's any good. It doesn't need to be wearing a certain t-shirt or haircut in order to qualify as awesome. It just has to appeal to my sensibility as a person.

"But now, David, after listening again, do you LIKE IT???" I can now say that the answer to that question is an emphatic YES. It is a really good record, gorgeous, intricate, powerful, and, quite frankly, transcends the cultural box that I perceived it to be in 4 years ago. In other words, Illinois is, I think, better than any of the hipsters think it is, in that it will continue to be fantastically amazing after the "cool" factor has worn off, and THAT is the mark of a great record. It is my sincere hope that all my professors from music school hear or have heard this record as well, because it needs to be examined on a broader scale. It needs to be a record that is praised for its sheer musical value. Maybe it already has been praised/evaluated in this fashion, and I was too busy being cynical to pay attention. I kind of don't think it's possible for such a thing to happen when all the cool kids are drooling all over the record in question, however. You can't see/hear through the drool to know what's really going on.

The drool has worn off. Let us now enjoy Illinois in a pure manner again. Let us praise Sufjan Stevens the composer, the musical visionary. And for God's sake, stop talking about how cool he is.

Friday, November 6, 2009

It Chooses You (Part 2)

Music and the road have many unseverable connections for me. Ultimately, the fact that these things happen "on the road" (as opposed to when I am at home) is even more remarkable, and is tied up in all sorts of (probably) crazy things that I believe about my destiny, my purpose and my passions. I so enjoyed the family road trips of my youth that I am probably permanently damaged by them (or perceived as such by others). An inexplicable fondness for an I-40 rest area or any momentary romantic notion of McDonald's french fries would serve as ample evidence, I'm sure. I am so passionate about traveling by car to faraway destinations that I have for many years believed it must be an essential part of my destiny to do so. This passion would not have become so firmly cemented were it not for the inexorable connection it has with music, however. Without the innumerable songs that somehow have been and continue to be woven into my memories and experiences on the road, most of these would mean much less. It's possible that Abbey Road is only my favorite Beatles album BECAUSE of the fact that I heard it so many times on road trips. Would Sgt. Pepper be my favorite if it had filled that role instead?

Early this afternoon as I sat and awaited our departure from Houston, I thought about how I used to get so irritated with my parents for not being ready to leave for a day of driving in a timely manner (or what I & my brother DEEMED to be a timely manner). I hadn't thought about that in quite some time, and I realized that I had never pinpointed WHY I was so irritated by being made to wait. I truly disliked the delays because it meant LESS time in the car, and ultimately LESS time in headphones. You may ask at this point why I didn't just spend the time waiting in headphones, and the only answer I have is that, for me, it would have been like, "Oh, I'm sorry, it's going to be another two hours or so until we go to the gourmet mexican place. Here are some 7-11 nachos to tide you over." Literally, music with the road trip and music without the road trip were two different things, and when the knowledge exists that the latter will occur eventually, the former loses much of its luster.

It's funny, because I've heard a lot of criticism of the automobile lately as a place to listen to music. I think it's ridiculous. The closeness of the space allows the sound to behave more efficiently, I think. At least that's my experience. Certain records sound better in the car. I can still remember when I was in college, and my parents bought a Ford Explorer that had a ten-disc CD changer already installed. I wanted nothing more than to just drive around and listen to music in that thing for hours and hours on end. I got to drive it to Atlanta once, and it was one of the most enjoyable drives I've ever had with just me and the music.

Also, in my adult life, there have been many months and even years when most of my listening was done in the car. If I want time to sit and listen to music at home, I have to actively cultivate it (this is mostly done by staying up later than I should and losing sleep just to spend some quality time with the stereo and my record collection. However, this enables some enjoyment of music I otherwise might not ever access; see the Two Records, Two Beers entry).

Many days I feel like if I didn't have music to listen to in the car, I just would refuse to drive altogether. Mind you, I spend time in the car listening to podcasts and NPR as well, but many of the podcasts are directly related to music, and I really only turn on NPR in the car about once or twice a week.

Music in the car and music on the ROAD are two different things, though, and I really long for the days when twice a year, for days at a time, I would just sit in the back seat while my parents drove and jam out to my cassettes. Now, I trust my iPod to deliver, and many times it does. Perhaps more than ever, the music is choosing me, and it's entirely possible that it always has. Maybe the music that influences us, changes us the most is choosing us...Maybe there are reasons that Jefferson Starship was blowing my mind in 1984, Pink Floyd and They Might Be Giants in 1989, Frank Zappa and Aphex Twin in 1996, Wilco in 2005...and so many more throughout.

What music is choosing/has chosen you?

Monday, November 2, 2009

It Chooses You (Part 1)

I started this entry several weeks ago, and finally was able to finish it. I'm publishing it in two parts. Look for part 2 later this week.

Remember the part in "Almost Famous" where the Lester Bangs "character" is first introduced (he's doing an in-studio interview at the radio station)? He does a sort of monologue that begins like this: "Here's a theory for you to disregard completely--MUSIC, you know, TRUE MUSIC, it chooses you. You know, it lives in your car, your stereo..." I've thought about this statement a number of times in the years since I first saw this film. I think I've had a number of moments where I felt that, no, it wasn't music that was choosing me, it was me who was choosing music. I really wonder sometimes, though. I really do.

Like today. K.C. and I spent the last week and a half or so in Texas, mostly in Austin, then Rockport and Houston at the very end. During these extended periods of time away from home I seem to have certain songs that get stuck in my head, or keep popping up in my consciousness repeatedly over the course of a number of days. This trip was no different. I found myself singing certain songs, or portions of songs, to myself over and over again, and also would be reminded multiple times of particular songs.

Today we started our drive home from Houston at about 1:30. I was in a bit of a crappy mood, mostly because our departure time did not meet my expectations (in other words, totally my fault). I plugged the iPod into the FM transmitter and set it on shuffle with, I must admit, a pretty negative attitude about what I might get. Shuffle does bring some incredible things sometimes, but it also can bring a lot of music you're just not in the mood for, depending on how sharply specific your mood IS.

Remarkably, or maybe I should even say AMAZINGLY, the shuffle brought forth not only a great many songs I was both in the mood for and very grateful to hear, but a NUMBER OF SONGS THAT HAD BEEN RATTLING AROUND MY HEAD FOR DAYS, as mentioned earlier. Songs that very much had been accidental sorts of "theme songs" for this little mini-tour.

What to make of this? Do our iPods have some sort of actual consciousness within them that reads our brains? This is unlikely, but I start to wonder. I also start to wonder if larger creative forces ultimately have influence over devices such as this. Is shuffle really RANDOM at all? Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't? Is it all just crazy coincidence?

I suppose that must depend on how much credence you may or may not put in the idea of pure coincidence. I am not a big believer in pure coincidence...I like the idea that most things, or even all things, happen for a reason, even the smallest things that don't seem to matter much like my iPod. Maybe music is choosing me, those particular songs are choosing me...maybe they are the songs that can and will bolster me, or boost my morale, or whatever. Perhaps it is that they are being chosen FOR me. All this (wouldn't you know it) leads me to think more about the larger picture...