Music / Sufjan Stevens

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"SUFJAN STEVENS plays the following instruments: acoustic guitar, piano, wurlitzer, electric bass, drum kit, electric guitar, oboe, Miriam's alto saxophone, Summin's flute, Daniel's banjo and/or Matt's banjo (depending on which one was in tune), Shara's glockenspiel, Laura's rickety accordion, a rented vibraphone, various recorders (Sufjan owns the tenor, soprano, and sopranino, but he borrowed Monique's alto), a Casiotone MT-70, sleigh bells, shakers, tambourine, triangle, and a Baldwin electric church organ. Oh Lord, help us!"
— From the Illinois liner notes

Sufjan Stevens (born July 1, 1975) is an American multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and independent musician (born and raised in Michigan, now based in New York) beholden to no genre. He’s most famous for his albums about the states of Michigan and Illinois—featuring a mix of Folk Music, Baroque Pop, and Post-Rock—and for claiming that he planned to release similar albums for the other 48 states (a project he eventually scrapped and admitted was a "promotional gimmick"). However, he’s also released albums of straight folk music (Seven Swans), electronica (Enjoy Your Rabbit), and orchestral music (The B.Q.E.); and the genre of The Age of Adz and Silver & Gold could perhaps be described as “all of the above”.

See here for a more in-depth survey of Sufjan’s career.

His musical collaborators include Daniel Smith, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Annie Clark, Shara Worden, and the string quartet Osso. He's also one-third of the alternative hip-hop group Sisyphus, alongside Serengeti and Son Lux.

Discography:

  • A Sun Came (2000)
  • Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001)
  • Michigan, aka Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State (2003)
  • Seven Swans (2004)
  • A Sun Came! (2004) - Reissued version, with two bonus tracks and new cover art.
  • Illinois, aka Come On, Feel the Illinoise! (2005)
  • The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album (2006)
  • Songs for Christmas: Volumes I - V (2006)
  • Run Rabbit Run (2009) - A rearrangement of Enjoy Your Rabbit for a string quartet.
  • The B.Q.E. (2009)
  • All Delighted People EP (2010)
  • The Age of Adz (2010)
  • Hit & Run, Vol. 1 (2012) - Split 7" vinyl collaboration with Rosie Thomas.
  • Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6 -10 (2012)
  • Carrie & Lowell (2015)
  • The Greatest Gift (2017) - Mixtape of Carrie & Lowell outtakes, remixes, and demos

Most of these can be streamed in their entirety on Sufjan's Bandcamp page.

By the way, Snow Patrol got his first name wrong. It's pronounced "Soof-yahn", not "Suhf-yahn".


To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and It Involves Tube Socks, a Paper Airplane, Twenty-Two Able-Bodied Men, and the Following Tropes:

  • Aborted Arc: The Fifty States project. After Michigan and Illinois, Carrie and Lowell was supposed to be a record about Oregon until he was dissuaded by his co-producer. This also explains the outtakes from The Greatest Gift: "Exploding Whale" (about a whale carcass detonated in Florence, Oregon), "The Hidden River of My Life" (a reference to Rogue River), "City of Roses" and "Wallowa Lake Monster".
    • References to Oregon are found in two other songs released in 2017, "Mystery of Love" (which again namedrops Rogue River) and "Tonya Harding", about the eponymous, Portland-born figure skater.
  • Abusive Parents: "Pittsfield", listed under Calling the Old Man Out, below.
    • The father in "This Was the Worst Christmas Ever!"
  • Accidental Misnaming / Affectionate Nickname: According to "Eugene", his stepfather initially had difficulty remembering Sufjan's name:
    The man who taught me to swim, he couldn't quite say my first name
    Like a father, he led community water on my head
    And he called me Subaru
  • Album Filler: A Sun Came and its reissue both have bizarre spoken-word interludes between the songs.
  • Album Title Drop:
    • The title of Silver & Gold comes from a lyric off "Justice Delivers Its Death".
    • Carrie & Lowell's Title Track namedrops the song/album.
    • Michigan and Illinois, reasonably, have ample examples of this.
  • Alliterative Name: Sufjan Stevens.
  • Alliterative Title:
    • Seven Swans.
    • The Greatest Gift.
    • Run Rabbit Run.
    • "Death with Dignity".
    • Subverted with The Age of Adz: the last word is pronounced as "odds".
    • The Either/Or Title of "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!" is "Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!"
  • All Take and No Give: God Himself, according to "Casimir Pulaski Day."
  • Ambiguously Bi: While he's never spoken publicly about his sexuality (and refuses to discuss his love life in interviews), his songs have been known to carry both homoerotic and heteroerotic undertones, although it's the homoerotic ones that tend to raise more eyebrows and stir more speculation.
  • Anachronic Order: Carrie & Lowell jumps from the present to the past then back again, sometimes in the course of the same song; the event that opens the album (the titular Carrie's death) isn't discussed in detail until mid-album.
    • The second stanza of "Casimir Pulaski Day" (about the Love Interest's father committing suicide) chronologically belongs at the end of the song.
  • Animal Motifs: The rabbit, which happens to be his Chinese zodiac sign. Horses, especially dead or tired ones, get a lot of mentions in Carrie and Lowell too.
    • Birds make frequent appearances ("The Owl and the Tanager", "The Lord God Bird", "Majesty Snowbird", the pet names in "Fourth of July", "five red hens" in "Death with Dignity", all the mentions of meadowlarks, etc.), and Stevens has been known to wear wings in concert.
    • "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us".
    • "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair".
  • Animated Music Video: Stevens has directed a number of stop-motion music videos for himself and other musicians on his label.
  • Anti-Christmas Song: Found among the multitudes of his Christmas originals, most notably:
    • "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!", about two children spending the holiday with their abusive parents.
    • "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It)", about a relationship going sour as a result of what appears to be a mood disorder.
    • "Sister Winter", about seasonal depression amplified by the end of a romantic relationship.
    • "Christmas Unicorn", which is a criticism of the holiday's crass commercialism and the hypocrisy regarding its pagan past.
  • Anti-Love Song: "Impossible Soul" veers into this in the very last, acoustic, part.
    I never meant to lead you on
    I only meant to please me, however
  • Arc Number: 7 (Seven Swans, "seven hours" in "The Owl and The Tanager", "seven times" in "The Predatory Wasp...", "seven miles" in "The Seer's Tower", etc.)
  • As the Good Book Says...: His music is replete witn biblical references, even when the songs talk about secular things like bar hookups or summers spent in Oregon.
  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: The gory and hilarious claymation video for "Mr Frosty Man", about a snowman protecting a boy from a horde of zombies.
  • Audience Participation Song: "Sister".
  • Author Appeal: Astrology, romantic/sexual encounters with ambiguously-gendered partners, and obscure historical/geographical Shout Outs, to name a few. Sonically speaking, he also has an obvious affinity for lavish, woodwind-heavy, symphonic compositions. (See also Creator Thumbprint, below.)
  • Auto-Tune:
    • Used conspicuously throughout "Impossible Soul".
    • Applied to his vocals on "Here I Am!", his song from Hit & Run Vol. 1.
    • Used extensively on the entire Planetarium album. One particular example is the electropop-esque "Saturn".
  • "Awesome McCool" Name: Not just him, but most of his family. See Sesquipedalian Smith below.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: From "Should Have Known Better":
    My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination.
  • Baroque Pop: He's one of the most prominent musicians in the genre.
  • Based on a True Story:
    • John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was a real serial killer.
    • Carrie & Lowell is entirely autobiographical, and some earlier songs ("Chicago", "The Mistress Witch from McClure", "Size Too Small") are reportedly based on incidents from Sufjan's life as well.
  • Bath Suicide: Discussed in "The Only Thing".
    The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
    Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark...
  • Be Yourself: Subverted in "A Winner Needs a Wand", whose narrator knows that the standards imposed by society/God are toxic and that he can't fit into them — yet he can't help but try and conform in order to be "a winner".
    This life that's shut on me, that shouldn't be the grounds
    To emulate an epicenenote , to elevate a sound
    This life, a winner needs, a winner needs a wand.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: He's got them.
  • Big "OMG!": Sufjan does one in "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." after noting how Gacy killed 27 teenage boys and young men (actually somewhere over 33). Especially interesting is how the "OMG" isn't traditionally yelled but softly and beautifully cooed.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Carrie & Lowell ends with "Blue Bucket of Gold", in which Sufjan (after admitting his deep emotional wounds in "John My Beloved" and unsuccessfully attempting to heal them in "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross") begins quietly moving on from his mother's death. He pleads for someone to fill the hole left with her departure, whether it be a friend or God, and the song ends with an ambient crescendo that, according to Sufjan, symbolizes him finally letting go and surrendering his mother to the beyond.
  • Bizarre Instrument: The guitalin — a lute-like instrument invented in the 1960s — featured heavily in Carrie & Lowell and in subsequent live shows.
  • Boléro Effect:
    • "The BQE, Mvt. III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise" is all buildup, and the crescendo only comes in "Mvt. IV: Traffic Shock".
    • "Djohariah" builds up to a crescendo twice, before ending as a quiet acoustic song.
  • Book Ends:
    • Illinois opens with the squeaking of a piano stool and two short introductory tracks, and then goes into the first full Epic Rocking, two-part song on the album, "Come On, Feel the Illinoise," which opens with a piano riff and is in Uncommon Time. The last Epic Rocking, two-part song on the album, "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders," also opens with a piano riff and is in Uncommon Time. It is followed by two short closing tracks and the squeaking of a piano stool.
    • The Age of Adz begins ("Futile Devices") and ends (the last movement of "Impossible Soul") with quiet acoustic songs, contrasting with the rest of the album's electronic bombast.
  • Break-Up Song: "Enchanting Ghost", "I Walked", "Impossible Soul", "Dumb I Sound".
  • Broken Record: The end of "I Want to Be Well"; the end of "Kill"; and parts of ""Impossible Soul".
  • B-Side: Few and far between, since he normally releases singles digitally. One exception to the rule is "Borderline", a B-side for "The Dress Looks Nice on You".
  • B.S.O.D. Song: "I Want to Be Well".
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Despite being (in)famous for his curious costume choices, weird dance moves, a non-rock'n'roll fascination with Christianity, and an uneven, erratic work output, he is a very prolific musician and is widely considered to be one of the best songwriters of his generation.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross".
    Like a champion, get drunk to get laid.
  • Call-and-Response Song: "Impossible Soul".
  • Call-Back:
    • During the second movement of "Impossible Soul", there are a few times when the female voice sings the word "do" the same way that Sufjan sings it at the end of the first chorus of "Futile Devices".
    • Earlier, "Chicago" (from Illinois) reuses a section of melody from "The Transfiguration" (from Seven Swans).
    • A portion of the melody from "Upper Peninsula" is reused in "They Are Night Zombies...".
    • Part of the melody from "Detroit" reappears in "The Mystery of Love".
    • His version of "Joy to the World" from Silver and Gold takes a chorus from "Impossible Soul" and a sample from another track in the same album, "Do You Hear What I Hear?"
    • "Wallowa Lake Monster", a Carrie & Lowell outtake, notably contains Illinois-esque horns in its extended outro.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: "Pittsfield" from The Avalanche describes a neglectful (and possibly emotionally abusive) parent or guardian. It opens with the narrator affirming their own independence and reflecting that they are no longer afraid of this person.
    I'm not afraid of you now, I know / so I climb down from the bunk bed this slow / I can talk back to you now, I know / from a few things that I learned from this TV show / You can work late til midnight; we don't care / We can fix our own meals, we can wash our own hair
  • Carpe Diem: From "Fourth of July":
    Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light.
  • Celebrity Song: "Tonya Harding"; unusually for the trope, it is, in fact, about Tonya Harding.
    • "Saul Bellow" and "For Clyde Tombaugh", both off The Avalanche.
  • Character Title: Too many to list them all here, but some examples include "Jason", "Djohariah", and "Tonya Harding".
  • The Cheerleader: During the Illinoise tour, Stevens and the backing band were dressed as a cheerleading unit, called The Illinoisemakers and modeled after the cheerleaders of the University of Illinois.
  • Christmas In July: He has a song titled, quite fittingly, "Christmas in July".
  • Christmas Songs: He's recorded 100 of them, spread over 10 albums.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Between the elaborate costumes, absurdly long song titles, and Christmas infomercials, occasionally yes.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: Illinois initially had cover artwork with Superman flying through the sky in the background. Shortly after releasing the album, the record label realized they never got permission from DC Comics to use Superman's likeness. To prevent a lawsuit, they took every copy that hadn't been sold yet and slapped a sticker of three balloons over the Man of Steel. Later reprintings of Illinois were less clumsy, and edited the cover art itself to replace Supes with either empty sky or the three balloons; and the 10-year anniversary edition has the Chicago-born superhero Blue Marvel in Superman's place (whose use on the cover has been approved by Marvel).
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "I Want to Be Well" ends with the refrain "I'm not fucking around!" repeated over a dozen times.
    • Doubles as a sort of Precision F-Strike, as this song is the only one on the album (and the first in his catalog up to that point) to make use of the F word.
  • Common Time: He's been known to use it to great effect; notably, "Come On, Feel the Illinoise!" switches from 5/4 to 4/4 midway through the song.
  • Concept Album: Very prevalent in Sufjan's work. So much that the marketing for The Age of Adz stressed the fact that Sufjan was finally releasing an album that has no concept.
  • Cover Album: Run Rabbit Run, which is Enjoy Your Rabbit rearranged for a string orchestra.
  • Cover Version:
    • His version of "Ring Them Bells," done for the I'm Not There soundtrack.
    • "What Goes On" for the Cover Album This Bird Has Flown.
    • Arthur Russell's "A Little Lost".
    • For the Dark Was the Night charity compilation, he covered labelmate Castanets' "You are the Blood".
    • "Lakes of Canada", originally by The Innocence Mission, covered in live performances and for a Blogotheque Take Away show.
    • He also contributed an amazing reinterpretation of "Free Man In Paris" for a tribute album that reuses the lyrics of the original but strikes out with a drastic rearrangement of the melody and overall structure of the song. Check it out!
    • "Hotline Bling" was the encore for the Carrie & Lowell tour and it has ended up on the live album. Apparently, Sufjan has performed the song live more times than Drake himself.
    • He's played a particularly violent and depressing version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" live.
    • Silver & Gold includes a cover of Prince's "Alphabet St." What exactly the song has to do with Christmas is left to the listener to decide.
  • Cradling Your Kill: The titular "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." did this to his victims.
  • Crappy Holidays: "Casimir Pulaski Day" and a number of Anti-Christmas songs listed above.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: The narrator of "All for Myself" acts perhaps a tad more...possessive of his boyfriend than strictly necessary.
  • Creator Thumbprint: Biblical imagery, Greek myth, the landmarks of Michigan and Oregon, and birds feature in many of his songs.
  • Crisis of Faith:
    • "Casimir Pulaski Day" revolves around the narrator suffering one after the death of a loved one due to bone cancer, musing over the emptiness of his religious practices and beliefs as a result.
    All the glory when He took our place
    But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
    And He takes and He takes and He takes...
    • It's also the subject of the aptly titled "Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)", off Michigan.
    • This is a common interpretation of "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross," as well.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • The lyrics on The Age of Adz deal a lot with emotions and personal themes including death, disease, illness, anxiety, and suicide.
    • Considering it concerns his mother's death, Carrie and Lowell is easily his heaviest album lyrically.
    • Earlier in his career, Michigan and Seven Swans marked a Lighter and Softer (or at least more accessible) turn after the heavy angst and experimentation of A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit. Illinois sits somewhere in between the two modes, with its joke titles and peppy instrumentation accompanying songs about cancer and serial killers.
  • Darkest Hour: During the downward spiral detailed on Carrie & Lowell, "John My Beloved" is the start of his realization of what he has become, but "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" is where he fully hits rock bottom, noting how he has tried distracting himself from his emotions with unhealthy behaviors like sleeping around and drug abuse.
  • Dark Reprise: At the end of "Impossible Soul", the optimistic "Boy, we can do much more together!" is transformed into a defeated "Boy, we made such a mess together".
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Explicitly mentioned in "All Of Me Wants All of You".
    You checked your texts while I masturbated
  • "Days of the Week" Song : "Casimir Pulaski Day", which lists Tuesday and Sunday and ends on a Monday (i.e. the titular holiday).
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The album art for The Greatest Gift, as well as the original album art for A Sun Came.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: The album cover for The B.Q.E..
  • Despair Event Horizon: Thanks to the Anachronic Order of the depicted events, this happens on various songs in Carrie & Lowell, with "Should Have Known Better" providing the most blatant lyrics:
    Don’t back down, there is nothing left
    The breakers in the bar, no reason to live
  • Destructive Romance:
    • "Drawn to the Blood", also listed under Domestic Abuse.
    • "The Owl and the Tanager", about a secret, emotionally painful relationship (also involving some violence).
    • "All of Me Wants All of You", about a relationship that's lost all passion and intimacy.
  • Digital Piracy Is Okay: He has stated in interviews that he has no problem with people sampling or illegally downloading his music.
    I have a publisher and I make money from the publishing of the songs. That's a big part of an income, so I'm not going to pretend that I'm that socialistic about my music. But I'm not so possessive about it that I would sue anyone who misused it.
  • Distinct Double Album: Illinois was originally supposed to be this, but eventually the idea was scrapped as "presumptious" and "arrogant'; the cut songs were released a year later as The Avalanche. That said, the cover art for The Avalanche echoes that of Illinois, and the two albums are thematically linked by their connection to the state of Illinois.
  • Domestic Abuse: The narrator in "Drawn to the Blood" suffers this. Unfortunately has a Reality Subtext. From the April 2015 issue of Uncut magazine:
    Asked whether the abusive relationship described in "Drawn To The Blood" was [Sufjan's] own, he simply answers, "Yes."
  • Double Entendre: "A Winner Needs a Wand" is ostensibly about the confines of masculinity, and the "wand" of the title is... a metaphor.
  • Double Meaning: "No shade in the shadow of the cross", from the song of the same name, could refer to two opposite things: the narrator is either able to escape the ghost (i.e. shade) of his mother through religion, or he's unable to find relief in religion.
  • Dream Team: He collaborated on Planetarium (an album inspired by the Solar System) with The National guitarist Bryce Dessner, drummer James McAlister, and contemporary classical music composer Nico Muhly.
    • He has recorded and performed with The National on a number of occasions.
  • Driven to Suicide: Implied to be the case for the father of the Ill Girl from "Casimir Pulaski Day" ("...and he drove his car into the Navy Yard".)
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Detailed on Carrie & Lowell, from a Reality Subtext.
    Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away.
  • Dying Alone: The most likely future of the narrator of "Flint".
    I forgot the start
    Use my hands to use my heart
    Even if I died alone.
  • Dying Town: Detroit is depicted as one in "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!".
  • Early Installment Weirdness: He's generally known as a folk / alt-rock musician, but his earliest releases were considerably more avant-garde. His debut album was an ambitious mix of cross-cultural ethnic folk, and was promptly followed by a glitch album, of all things.
  • Eastern Zodiac: Enjoy Your Rabbit, an electronica album where 12 compositions are titled "Year of [Animal]" (and the 13th is titled "Year of Our Lord").
  • Echoing Acoustics: Frequent in his work, and particularly noticeable in Planetarium and throughout Carrie & Lowell.
  • Either/Or Title: Both Michigan (aka Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State) and Illinois (aka Come On, Feel the Illinoise!), considering their album covers use different titles than the ones they are commonly referred to by.
  • Eleven O'Clock Number:
    • The 25-minute, multi-part "Impossible Soul" serves as the closer to The Age of Adz.
    • The lengthy, epic "Christmas Unicorn" sits at the end of Silver & Gold.
    • "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross", the penultimate song of Carrie & Lowell, represents Sufjan hitting the bottom of his emotional downward spiral.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Detailed in "All Delighted People", "Seven Swans", "Marching Band", and "The Seer's Tower".
  • Epic Fail: Stated verbatim in "Exploding Whale".
    Embrace the epic fail
    Of my exploding whale
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: "They Are Night Zombies..." among others.
    • "Djohariah" goes on for almost 12 minutes before the actual lyrics start.
  • Epic Rocking: Many of his songs are over six minutes long; so far the longest is "Year of the Horse" at 14 minutes "Djohariah" at 17 minutes "Impossible Soul" at 25 minutes.
    • Seven Swans and The B.Q.E. are the only albums to run for less than an hour.
    • All Delighted People, supposedly an EP, clocks in at 59 minutes.
  • Ethereal Choir: Occasionally appears at the end of his songs (e.g. "Wallowa Lake Monster", "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" and, most famously, "Chicago".)
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: "One Last Woo-Hoo! For The Pullman" has only one lyric: "Woo-hoo!"
  • Excited Show Title!: A Sun Came!, Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, and many individual songs.
    • The most excessive one is "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!"
    • "Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!" deserves a mention as well.
  • Fading into the Next Song: Used all over the place.
  • Face on the Cover: The original album art for A Sun Came; the re-release changed it to a fantasy illustration.
  • Follow Your Heart:
    • Stated verbatim in "Vesuvius":
    Sufjan, follow your heart
    Follow the flame or fall on the floor
    • The ending of "Come on, Feel the Illinoise!":
    Are you writing from the heart, are you writing from the heart?
  • Ghost Town: "They Are Night Zombies..." references numerous Illinois ghost towns.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: "To Be Alone with You", "The Greatest Gift".
  • Good Is Not Nice: God is portrayed this way in a number of Sufjan songs. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is maybe the most straightforward example:
    All the glory when He took our place,
    but He took my shoulders and He shook my face
    and He takes and He takes and He takes...
  • Grief Song: Carrie & Lowell is comprised of these.
    • "Casimir Pulaski Day".
  • Happier Home Movie: On the Carrie & Lowell tour, a few of the songs use home movies as a backdrop, often in contrast to their sad tones.
  • Hellish Horse: There's a whole gaggle of them in the cover art for the reissue of A Sun Came!
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: The entirety of Carrie & Lowell, written from the perspective of Sufjan coping with his mother's death.
  • Hippie Parents: According to various interviews, Sufjan's parents.
  • Hookers and Blow: It gives the narrator of "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" no comfort at all.
  • I Am the Band: of the "solo artist who plays almost everything" variety. (It should be noted that he tours with a backing band, and most of his records - excepting All Delighted People - feature other performers, albeit in very limited roles).
  • Iconic Item: The giant feathery wings that he's occasionally worn in concert, starting from The Age of Adz tour and onward.
  • I Kiss Your Foot: Mentioned in "Sister Winter"
    When I kissed your ankle, I kissed you through the night.
  • Ill Girl: The Love Interest in "Casimir Pulaski Day".
  • Impractically Fancy Outfit: In concert, he's worn giant wings, a disco-ball onesie, and a costume made out of balloons.
  • In-Name-Only: All Delighted People EP. It's longer than some of his albums.
  • Instrumentals: About half of Illinois and The Avalanche; the entirety of Enjoy Your Rabbit, Run Rabbit Run and The BQE; and "Redford" and "Tahquamenon Falls", off Michigan.
  • Intercourse with You:
    • "Kill" ("he took the stable, bred me to be a mare").
    • "All of Me Wants All of You" ("on the sheet I see your horizon / all of me pressed onto you").
    • "All for Myself" ("impressions of the unmade bed / you cradled close to me, close to my ear").
  • "I Want" Song:
    • "I Want to Be Well", obviously.
    • "All for Myself", with its repeated refrain of "I want it all, I want it all for myself".
    • "Kill" is a dark version of the trope, with these repeated lines:
    I want to kill him, I want to cut his face, and when it's over, I know I'll feel okay.
  • Limited Lyrics Song:
    • "Flint", which is only two stanzas long, with many of the words repeating.
    • "Wolverine", a Michigan B-Side, repeats a lot of the same lyrics.
  • Listing Cities:
    • "The 50 States", a live-show-exclusive song.
    • The refrain of "They are Zombies!.." spells out the names of no less than fifteen Illinois ghost towns.
    • The Either/Or Title of "Oh God, Where Are You Now?" is "In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Mackinaw? Marquette?"
  • List Song:
    • The midsection of "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!" lists a series of Michigan-related buzzwords ("Henry Ford", "Pontiac", "Windsor Park", "Saginaw", "wolverine", "Iroquois", etc.) that ends with "Michigan".
    • Part I of "Come on, Feel the Illinoise!" lists all the things that could be seen at the Chicago World Fair in 1893.
    • "The Only Thing", despite its title, is a list of things Worth Living For.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "A Good Man is Hard to Find", based on the short story of he same name by Flannery O'Connor.
  • Location Song: Michigan and Illinois, both concept albums about these US states. (The Avalanche is also set in Illinois).
    • "Eugene" off Carrie & Lowell. In fact, if you take C&L, add the outtakes from The Greatest Gift, plus "Mystery of Love" and "Tonya Harding" for good measure, you'll get Oregon.
    • "The Owl and the Tanager" is set in or around Petoskey, Michigan, and "Great God Bird" takes place in Arkansas.
  • Lonely Piano Piece: "Flint" and "The Seer's Tower" are two piano-led songs that both explicitly address the crippling loneliness of the narrator.
    • "Redford" is an equally desolate albeit instrumental piano piece.
  • Long Song, Short Scene: Two hidden songs show up as The Stinger in The BQE film: "The Sleeping Red Wolves" and an untitled noise-music piece. Neither are included on the soundtrack album.
  • Long Title: He was known for his ample use of this trope for naming songs at the start of his career.
    • Some are longer than the songs they're attached to, such as "The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or, 'I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'". It's a two minute long instrumental.
    • Several (such as the one above) double as Either/Or Titles.
    • The full album titles of Michigan and Illinois are Sufjan Stevens Presents... Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State and Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise, respectively.
  • Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: The narrator / Author Avatar in Carrie & Lowell.
  • Lost in the Maize: Illinois has a short track about a real-life corn maze, titled "A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze".
  • Loudness War: Almost completely averted. While a couple of songs can reach as low as DR5, this is rare and he hasn't had a major release yet come in at below DR8 overall. Carrie & Lowell is DR10 even on the CD edition.
  • Love Confession: "Futile Devices" is about the insurmountable difficulty of making one.
  • Love Hurts: A frequent subject of his songs.
    • "The Owl and the Tanager" ("I'm bleeding in spite of my love for you, it bruised and bruised my will").
    • "Enchanting Ghost" ("Did you cut your hands on me? Are my edges sharp? Am I a pest to feed?")
    • "Drawn to the Blood" ("but my prayer has always been love — what did I do to deserve this?")
    • "I Walked" ("at least I deserve the respect of a kiss goodbye").
    • "Bad Communication" ("I'll talk, but I know you won't listen to me").
  • Love Nostalgia Song: "Visions of Gideon".
    • "The Predatory Wasp...", subject to varying interpretations and escalated arguments, possibly qualifies.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Mostly of the "gentle music, harsh lyrics" variety. The biggest offender here is Carrie & Lowell in its entirety, with pretty melodies accompanying stories of parental neglect, death of loved ones, substance abuse, Domestic Abuse, failed relationships, Self-Harm, and suicidal thoughts.
    • "I Want to Be Well" is an upbeat, uptempo song whose narrator suffers from an unspecified illness.
  • Lyric Swap: On The Greatest Gift, the remix/demo versions of songs on Carrie & Lowell usually have several lines different, reflecting the progress between their unfinished states and what was featured on the album.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Stevens has five siblings, and large families feature in some of his songs, e.g. "Romulus", "Pittsfield", and "The Mistress Witch from McClure" — although the exact number of kids is never specified in the lyrics.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Illinois has a number of brief tracks (with overly-long titles like "A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons" or "One Last 'Whoo-hoo!' For The Pullman") ranging from 6 to 48 seconds long, which basically just serve as a coda for the preceding track. For some of these, you'd have to pay attention to your music player to even notice that they're a separate track.
  • Missing Mom: Sufjan's complicated feelings surrounding his rarely present mother Carrie are a common theme throughout Carrie & Lowell.
    • "Romulus" from the Michigan album also centers on this trope.
    • As does "Wallowa Lake Monster" from The Greatest Gift (an album of Carrie & Lowell outtakes and remixes).
  • Mohs Scale of Lyrical Hardness: Generally at around 4-6 (sadness, sexual metaphors), but can drop to as low as 0 (for the instrumentals) or 1-2 ("To Be Alone with You", "Majesty Snowbird", "The Dress Looks Nice on You", "Greatest Gift") or climb as high as 8-9 (the songs on Carrie & Lowell are quite explicit about suicidal urges, corpses, usage of hard drugs, and abusive relationships).
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • Happens from part to part of "Impossible Soul" (it's especially jarring toward the end, where it switches from loud, fun and dancey to a quiet acoustic ballad).
    • On Illinois, the joyous "Chicago" is directly followed by (and juxtaposed with) the mournful, tear-inducing "Casimir Pulaski Day".
    • A few tracks earlier on the same album, the VERY dark "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." leads directly into the much more upbeat and optimistic "Jacksonville."
  • Motor Mouth: The narrator of "Too Much".
    Maybe I'm talking too fast, maybe I'm talking too much.
  • Multi-Part Episode:
    • "Come On, Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)".
    • "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders (Part I: The Great Frontier — Part II: Come to Me Only with Playthings Now)".
    • "Impossible Soul" is (unofficially) divided into 5 movements.
  • Murder Ballad: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "A Good Man is Hard to Find".
  • My Nayme Is: "Sufjan" is a fairly popular name in the Middle East, but its traditional English spelling is with a Y ("Sufyan").
  • Name and Name: Carrie & Lowell.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: People often refer to Sufjan as "folk" or "indie folk", presumably either because (a) they think his straightforward folk songs are his best material, or (b) they'd rather not deal with the headache of figuring out what genre he really fits into.
  • New Sound Album: He's definitely prone to experimentation.
    • Enjoy Your Rabbit is arguably his weirdest album, considering it's, of all things, a glitch album.
    • Michigan synthesized Sufjan's influences (as seen on A Sun Came) into baroque-folky goodness, and Illinois subsequently put a more grandiose and maximalist spin on this sound.
    • Seven Swans is composed of quiet lo-fi indie rock.
    • The Age of Adz transmutes the Illinois and B.Q.E. sound into—in the words of the official site—"an explicit pop-song extravaganza" with "a few danceable moments."
    • Carrie & Lowell, considering its subject matter, retreats back to Sufjan's traditional indie folk sound with small bits of electronic tinkering for an atmospheric, ambient effect.
  • Nice Hat: He is known for wearing trucker hats (sometimes more than one at a time).
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Casimir Pulaski Day", "Holland", "Come on, Feel the Illinoise!".
  • Noodle Implements: The Illinoisnote  track "To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region: I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and It Involves an Inner Tube, Bath Mats, and 21 Able-bodied Men."
  • No Pronunciation Guide: In The Age of Adz, "adz" is actually pronounced as "odds".
  • Not Christian Rock: Several of his songs deal with his faith, but it's debatable whether he actually qualifies as a Christian rock artist. Stevens himself doesn't seem to consider himself one, although he acknowledges some of his earlier music could be considered Christian rock, saying, "I don't think music media is the real forum for theological discussions. I think I've said things and sung about things that probably weren't appropriate for this kind of forum. And I just feel like it's not my work or my place to be making claims and statements, because I often think it's misunderstood."
  • Not So Different: Sufjan ends "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." by stating that in his refusal to act morally superior to anyone, he and John are this.
    And in my best behavior,
    I am really just like him.
    • After noting how many young boys he killed, Sufjan asks "Are you one of them?", a question possibly posed towards John himself, since he was abused as a child in the same way that he abuses his victims and is therefore caught in a vicious cycle.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: The ending of "Impossible Soul":
    And did you think I'd stay the night?
    And did you think I'd love you forever?
  • Obsession Song: "All for Myself".
  • Older Than They Look: He was 30 when Illinois came out and made him famous, but he appeared five to ten years younger, and he has remained fairly youthful-looking into his early forties.
  • One-Man Song: "Jason", "Vito's Ordination Song", "Abraham", "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", "Adlai Stevenson", "Saul Bellow", "For Clyde Tombaugh", "John My Beloved", "Visions of Gideon", "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair".
    • Subverted with "Eugene" and "Romulus", which are titled after towns (in Oregon and Michigan, respectively).
  • One-Woman Song: "Djohariah", "Tonya Harding".
  • One-Word Title: "Chicago", "Borderline", "Eugene", "Vesuvius", "Holland", "Romulus", "Djohariah", "Pittsfield", "Sister", "Kill", "Arnika", "Heirloom", "Rake".
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: The press release for Songs for Christmas called it "the stocking stuffer of the century! Which isn't saying much, considering the century is still so young!"
  • Parental Neglect: The underlying theme of Carrie & Lowell.
    • "Pittsfield".
  • Pelvic Thrust: Done during live performances of "All of Me Wants All of You", presumably to make it clear that the song is indeed about a sexual relationship.
  • Pep-Talk Song: "Majesty Snowbird", "The Dress Looks Good on You".
    • Part IV of "Impossible Soul":
    It's a long life! Better pinch yourself!
    Get your face together! Better stand up straight!
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: His typical vocal delivery, although he occasionally goes for a more energetic sound (notably on The Age of Adz).
  • Perspective Flip: The most common interpretation of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is that it's from the perspective of the villain of Flannery O'Connor's short story of the same name.
  • The Place: The albums Illinois and Michigan, as well as numerous individual songs ("Flint", "Romulus", "Wolverine", "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti", "Redford", "Decatur", "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts", "Jacksonville", "Peoria", , "Chicago", "Springfield", "Pittsfield", "Eugene", etc.)
  • Pop-Star Composer: He scored the rodeo documentary Round-Up.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • "I'm not fucking around" from the end of "I Want to Be Well."
    • "Fuck me, I'm falling apart" from "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross."
    • "This world is a bitch, girl" from "Tonya Harding."
  • Psycho Strings: "They Are Night Zombies!.."
  • Public Domain: He forfeited the rights to some of his later Christmas originals, and they can be downloaded legally for free on his Bandcamp page.
  • Pun: "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades...", off the album Illinois, includes the line "I can't explain the state that I'm in."
  • Pun-Based Title:
    • Illinoise.
    • "The Seer's Tower" (referring to the Willis Tower, once known as the Sears Tower).
    • "Get Behind Me Santa", which is a riff of "Get Behind Me Satan" (both a phrase from the Bible and the title of a The White Stripes album).
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Overlapping with Excited Show Title!; many of his song titles, notably "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!" and "Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!".
  • Queer Romance: The most common interpretation of "The Owl and the Tanager" is that it's about an unhealthy and/or emotionally painful gay relationship (the two main characters are explicitly male in the original iteration of the song, but the genders are left vague in the version that made it to the All Delighted People EP).
  • Radio Friendliness: Very low on the scale of radio support, due to his songs being too long / arty / niche; "Chicago" is the rare exception to the rule, as it got significant airplay at some point in time.
  • Raised by Grandparents: The narrator of "Romulus".
  • Rearrange the Song: It's safe to say Sufjan is fond of this trope.
    • Sufjan has released five different version of "Chicago": the original, the acoustic version, the "adult contemporary easy listening" version, the "Multiple Personality Disorder" version, and the demo version.
    • Run Rabbit Run rearranges Enjoy Your Rabbit in its entirety for a string quartet.
    • There are two versions of "All Delighted People" (the regular one and the "classic rock" one).
    • There are also two versions of "Tonya Harding" (one in D major, one in Eb major).
    • Several official remixes and demo versions of several Carrie and Lowell tracks exist (to say nothing of the C&L Live Album, which often features extensive rearrangement).
    • A handful of songs on his Christmas albums also get this treatment.
  • Reconstruction: After dismissing Christmas as a social construct, and Christmas music as emotionally manipulative garbage, Sufjan attempted with Songs for Christmas to record something that captured "that creepy Christmas feeling".
  • Record Producer: He co-owns a small label (Asthmatic Kitty) and has produced all of his albums (except Seven Swans), as well as some outside records (e.g. the debut work of The Welcome Wagon).
  • Repurposed Pop Song: "Chicago" got a lot of play; it was used in the Little Miss Sunshine trailers and several TV shows in quick succession.
  • Rhyming with Itself: Off "Tonya Harding": "Well this world is a cold one / But it takes one to know one".
  • Rockers Smash Guitars: He's smashed banjos in concert.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Parts of "Impossible Soul" read this way:
    And you said something like: "All you want is all the world for yourself",
    But all I want is the perfect love, though I know it's small,
    I want love for us all.
    • The Avalanche cover states that the album was "shamelessly compiled by Sufjan Stevens''.
  • Saving Christmas: Parodied in the comic included in the Songs for Christmas box set.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: On The Age of Adz, particularly "I Walked", and on Carrie & Lowell.
  • Self-Deprecation: The narrator of "The Owl and the Tanager" ("...for I am the ugliest prey...").
  • Self-Harm: Referenced extensively throughout Carrie & Lowell.
    • The narrator of "The Owl and the Tanager" is a cutter.
  • Sesquipedalian Smith: Sufjan himself. And he has a brother named Marzuki Stevens and sisters named Djohariah Stevens and Djamilah Stevens.
  • Sex for Solace: Part of "No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross" may be describing this.
    Like a champion
    Get drunk to get laid
  • Signs of the End Times: "Seven Swans" (the song, not the album) is rife with apocalyptic imagery.
    We saw the dragon move down. / My father burned into coal.
  • Silly Love Songs: "Super Sexy Woman", "Holland", "Rake", "Christmas in the Room".
  • Singer Namedrop: Found in the title of "A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze".
    Sufjan, the panic inside, the murdering ghost that you cannot ignore
  • Singing Voice Dissonance: He has a high singing voice, and often veers into falsetto; his regular speaking voice is noticeably deeper.
  • Shown Their Work: Illinois and The Avalanche are dense with allusions to geography and local history.
  • Shout-Out: Now has its own page.
  • Snowy Sleigh Bells: Used extensively in his Christmas songs.
  • The Something Song: "Vito's Ordination Song".
  • Song Style Shift: The multi-parted "Impossible Soul".
  • Spelling Song: The refrain of "They Are Night Zombies!.." ("I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!", as well as the names of various ghost towns in the state.)
    • The refrain of "Get Behind Me Santa" ("C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S!").
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Shara Worden, previously featured on backing vocals, sings the lead vocals for the second movement of "Impossible Soul".
  • Stock Ness Monster: The titular "Wallowa Lake Monster" (which is a real Oregon legend).
  • Studio Chatter:
    • Several folkier songs begin with Sufjan counting off the time.
    • And his cover of "I Saw Three Ships" ends with someone saying "I played terrible."
    • "Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling" also ends with someone saying "Alright, let's do a real song."
    • "The Henney Buggy Band" opens and closes with studio chatter, ending with Sufjan asking, "That sounded pretty good, didn't it?"
  • Sucks At Dancing: Sufjan himself. Not that it's a bad thing.
  • Survival Mantra: "I want to be well, I want to be well, I want to be well, I want to be well..."
  • Sympathy for the Devil: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is a song that tells the story of a serial killer and rapist not in a demonizing light, but one that's emotive and pitying. Sufjan even ends the song by claiming that he and Gacy are, at the end of the day, not so different.
    And in my best behavior, I am really just like him.
  • Take That!: "Come On, Feel the Illinoise!" is a diatribe against commercialism and bad art.
  • Talking to Themself: From "Vesuvius":
    Sufjan, follow your heart, follow the flame or fall on the floor
    Sufjan, the panic inside, the murdering ghost that you cannot ignore
  • Teenage Death Song: "Casimir Pulaski Day" (although it's possible that the characters are still in their preteens).
  • Textless Album Cover: The single cover of "Tonya Harding" is a wordless colored pencil drawing of the titular ice skater.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: Despite his forays into electronica and his proficiency at lush orchestral arrangements, Stevens is mostly known for what he once referred to as "strummy-strum acoustic guitar songs".
  • Title Track: A Sun Came, Seven Swans, All Delighted People, The Age of Adz, and Carrie & Lowell all have one. In fact, All Delighted People technically has two (an original version and a classic rock version).
    • "Come on Feel the Illinoise!" is technically this for his fifth and most famous studio album, commonly referred to simply as Illinois.
  • Uncommon Time: Quite common in Sufjan's world. Too many examples to name, but "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" deserves a special mention.
  • Unicorn: Appears in "Christmas Unicorn" as a symbol of Christmas contradictions, and in the cover art for "Songs for Christmas Vol. X".
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: "Size Too Small", about being the best man at the wedding of a former crush or significant other.
  • Villain Song: "A Good Man is Hard to Find".
  • Wanderlust Song: "Chicago".
  • We All Die Someday: The repeated refrain of "we're all gonna die" from "Fourth of July".
  • Wham Line: "To Be Alone with You" starts off like a sweet love song, but then this line comes:
    To be alone with me, you went up on the tree.
  • Worth Living For: "The Only Thing", whose narrator contemplates suicide but ultimately decides not to go through with it after witnessing all the natural wonders around him.
  • Wretched Hive: Detroit in "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!".
    Once a great place,
    now a prison.
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: The Age of Adz.
  • Your Cheating Heart: "The Mistress Witch from McClure" is generally agreed to be about the father of the narrator having an affair with a younger woman.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: The subject of the aptly named "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!"
    • The plot of the claymation music video for "Mr Frosty Man".

...and I shake the dirt out of my sandals as I run.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Music/SufjanStevens