Music / Sufjan Stevens

"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 is a multi-instrumentalist 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.


  • A Sun Came (2000)
  • Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001)
  • Michigan, aka Welcome to 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) - The songs from Enjoy Your Rabbit, rearranged 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; upcoming) - 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".

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 tour-exclusive single "Exploding Whale," about a whale carcass detonated in Florence, Oregon.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Explicitly mentioned in "All Of Me Wants All of You".
    You checked your texts while I masturbated
  • 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.
  • 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 Saturn, going all Electro Pop on it!
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: His entire family. See below.
  • Baroque Pop
  • Big "OMG!": In "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." after noting how Gacy killed 27 teenage boys and young men (actually somewhere over 33).
  • Bolero 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.
  • 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).
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Cover Version: His version of "Ring Them Bells," done for the I'm Not There soundtrack. His version of "What Goes On" for the Cover Album This Bird Has Flown. For the Dark Was the Night charity compilation, he covered labelmate Castanets' "You are the Blood". 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.
  • Crisis of Faith: "Casimir Pulaski Day".
  • 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.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The album art for The Greatest Gift.
  • 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."
  • Eastern Zodiac: Enjoy Your Rabbit.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Ghost Town: "They Are Night Zombies..." references numerous Illinois ghost towns.
  • 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.
  • Hookers and Blow: It gives the narrator of "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" no comfort at all.
  • In-Name-Only: All Delighted People EP. It's longer than some of his albums.
  • Listing Cities: "The 50 States", a live-show-exclusive song.
  • Location Song: Michigan and Illinois, both concept albums about these US states.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • First, Michigan, which synthesized Sufjan's earlier influences into baroque-folky goodness.
    • Then, The Age of Adz, which 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.
  • 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."
  • 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."
  • 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!"
  • 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.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • "Fuck me I'm falling apart," from "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross."
    • "I'm not fucking around" from the end "I Want to Be Well."
  • Raised by Grandparents: The narrator of "Romulus".
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Saving Christmas: Parodied in the comic included in the Songs for Christmas box set.
  • Sesquipedalian Smith: Sufjan himself. And he has a brother named Marzuki Stevens and a sister named Djohariah Stevens.
    • ... and one sister named Megan.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: On The Age of Adz, particularly "I Walked".
  • 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
  • Shown Their Work: Illinois and The Avalanche are dense with allusions to geography and local history.
  • Shout-Out: Many.
    • He uses lyrics from "The Sounds of Silence" on the title track of All Delighted People.
    • "The Man of Metropolis..." from Illinois is about Superman being created in Illinois.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Shara Worden, previously featured on backing vocals, sings the lead vocals for the second movement of "Impossible Soul".
  • 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?"
  • 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).
  • Uncommon Time: Quite common in Sufjan's world. Too many examples to name, but "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" deserves a special mention.

...and I shake the dirt out of my sandals as I run.