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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.

Early in his career, he was most famous for his Concept 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 of America (a project he eventually scrapped and admitted was a "promotional gimmick"). Nowadays, he's at least as well known for Carrie & Lowell — a deeply personal and highly acclaimed album commemorating the death of his absent mother — and for his Oscar-nominated contributions to the soundtrack of the 2017 film Call Me by Your Name.

But more than anything, he's an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed, and over the course of a two-decades-long-and-counting career, he's released albums of straight folk (Seven Swans, Carrie & Lowell, A Beginner's Mind), electronica (Enjoy Your Rabbit, The Age of Adz, The Ascension), ambient (Aporia, Convocations), and contemporary classical music (The B.Q.E., The Decalogue), as well as a handful of projects which could perhaps best be described as "all of the above".

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

Discography (main studio albums are bolded):

  • 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: Vols. 1 - 5 (2006)
  • The BQE (2009) (soundtrack album for the eponymous live performance)
  • All Delighted People EP (2010)
  • The Age of Adz (2010)
  • Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6 - 10 (2012)
  • Carrie & Lowell (2015)
  • "Exploding Whale" (2015) (standalone single)
  • Carrie & Lowell Live (2017) (Live Album from Sufjan's 2015 Carrie & Lowell tour)
  • The Greatest Gift (2017) (mixtape of Carrie & Lowell outtakes, remixes, and demos)
  • "Tonya Harding" (2017) (standalone single with two versions of the titular song)
  • "Love Yourself / With My Whole Heart" (2019) (standalone single released to coincide with Pride 2019)
  • The Ascension (2020)
  • Convocations (2021)

Notable collaborations:

  • Marzuki (1996) with Marzuki (the band in which Sufjan played guitar and other instruments prior to going solo)
  • No One Likes a Nervous Wreck (1998) with Marzuki
  • Run Rabbit Run (2009) with Osso (a rearrangement of Enjoy Your Rabbit for a string quartet)
  • Hit & Run, Vol. 1 (2012) with Rosie Thomas (split 7" vinyl collab)
  • Beak & Claw EP (2012) with Serengeti and Son Lux (under the group name Sisyphus)
  • Sisyphus (2014) with Sisyphus
  • Planetarium (2017) with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister
  • Call Me By Your Name: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2017) with various artists (Sufjan contributed two original songs and one remix of an Age of Adz track)
  • The Decalogue (2019) with Timo Andres (originated as the score for a Justin Peck ballet)
  • Aporia (2020) with Lowell Brams (Sufjan's stepfather, and one half of Carrie & Lowell's namesake)
  • A Beginner's Mind (2021) with Angelo de Augustine
  • Reflections (2023) with Timo Andres and Conor Hanick (another Justin Peck ballet score)

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.
  • Abusive Parents: "Pittsfield", listed under Calling the Old Man Out, below.
    • The father in "This Was the Worst Christmas Ever!"
  • Album Filler: A Sun Came and its reissue both have bizarre spoken-word interludes between the songs. (These make somewhat more sense once you learn that most of them are childhood home recordings from Sufjan and his siblings.)
  • Album Intro Track:
    • "Year of the Asthmatic Cat" on Enjoy Your Rabbit: a sub-30-seconds instrumental lead-in which concludes with someone saying, in Chinese, "The cat is suffocated, she needs milk." (This is a reference to Sufjan's self-owned record label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, which also puts it at odds with the Chinese zodiac theme of the rest of the album.)
    • "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" on Illinois: a short, gentle piano piece which serves as a sort of prologue before the bombastic fanfare of "The Black Hawk War" and the peppy, multi-part "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!".
    • "Futile Devices" on The Age of Adz: a mellow, acoustic, traditionally Sufjan-esque song, just before the manic electronica which will dominate the rest of the album kicks in on "Too Much". (The track also introduces one of the album's main themes, the failure to communicate, with the Title Drop in its final line: "...and words are futile devices.")
  • Album Title Drop:
    • The title of Silver & Gold comes from a lyric off "Justice Delivers Its Death".
    • The Title Tracks from A Sun Came, Seven Swans, The Avalanche, All Delighted People, The Age of Adz, Carrie & Lowell, The Greatest Gift, The Ascension, and A Beginner's Mind all namedrop their respective 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!"
  • Alternate Album Cover:
    • The first pressing of Illinois included Superman mid-flight on the cover art—but Sufjan and his label, Asthmatic Kitty, neglected to get permission from DC Comics, as they mistakenly thought Superman was already in the public domain. To avoid a lawsuit, they covered Superman with a sticker of balloons on most of the unsold first-issue copies—and they edited the art itself for the reissues, replacing Supes either with a patch of empty sky, or the same balloons from the sticker. (Copies of the album with Superman are now rare collector's items.) Then the 10th anniversary vinyl reissue introduced yet another variant with a different comic book hero, Blue Marvel, reenacting Superman's pose.
    • The initial release of his debut album A Sun Came, in 2000, had a black-and-white photo of Sufjan staring straight at the camera. When it was reissued with a few bonus tracks in 2004, it featured a new cover with watercolor art of a toga-clad Sufjan fighting a dragon.
  • 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".
    • There is now a list of every animal referenced in Sufjan's music.
  • Animated Music Video:
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • Ascended Meme: He has parodied the frequent butchering of his name (Surfjohn, Sufjohn, Sirfjam, etc.) in infomercials and the name of his 2012 Christmas Tour (Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long).
  • As the Good Book Says...: His music is replete with 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".
    • "Fourth of July" is a more recent example. It's definitely curious hearing a crowd scream in unison "we're all gonna die!"
  • 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".
    • Employed in a more subtle way throughout The Ascension.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Blasphemous Praise: In "Tonya Harding", addressed to the eponymous figure skater:
    But it takes one to know one
    And God only knows what you are.
  • Boléro Effect:
    • "The BQE, Mvt. III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise" is all buildup, and the climax only comes in "Mvt. IV: Traffic Shock".
    • "Djohariah" builds up to a climax twice, before ending as a quiet acoustic song.
    • "Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run" combines this with Minimalism, à la Steve Reich, in the most glorious way.
  • 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 "Kill" and parts of several tracks on The Age of Adz (most notably the ending of "I Want to Be Well").
    • "Vito's Ordination Song" repeats its four-line hook fourteen times.
    • "Die Happy" repeats its single lyric—"I wanna die happy"—over 20 times.
  • 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".
    • “My Rajneesh,” the non-album b-side to “America,” garnered at least as much excitement upon its release as the single itself.
  • 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.
  • 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?"
      • Also on Silver and Gold, "I Am Santa's Helper (You Are Santa's Slave)" recycles an instrumental melody from Sufjan's concert-only song "Majesty Snowbird".
    • "Wallowa Lake Monster", a Carrie & Lowell outtake, notably contains Illinois-esque horns in its extended outro.
    • "The Hidden River of My Life", in a nod to Sufjan's mentioning of him receiving the Affectionate Nickname of "Subaru" from his stepfather in "Eugene", contains Sufjan describing himself as a "Subaru driver".
    • In "Should Have Known Better" (on Carrie & Lowell) Sufjan sings "My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings / Illumination". His Call Me By Your Name track "Mystery of Love", released two years later, includes the line "Cursed by the love that I received / From my brother's daughter".
    • In "The Only Thing", Suf sings "I want to save you from your sorrow". In "With My Whole Heart", released four years later, he sings "I will save you from your sorrow".
    • Several tracks on The Ascension have instrumental outros either very similar to—or directly sampled from—the interludes on Carrie & Lowell. For example, "America" ends with a synth melody much like the one that begins "Fourth of July". (Moreover, not only are the titles of those two songs thematically connected, but the former was even released on July 3rd.)
      • The Ascension track "Tell Me You Love Me" very blatantly samples the electronic instrumentation from "Climb That Mountain" on Aporia.
    • "My Rajneesh" samples conspicuously from "Vesuvius." "Calm It Down" by Sisyphus (the experimental hip-hop trio of which Sufjan forms one third) also reuses a snippet from the same song.
    • "You Give Death a Bad Name" (from A Beginner's Mind) pulls its chorus from "The Runaround" (the only track with vocals on Aporia).
  • 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
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Enjoy Your Rabbit is an instrumental concept album about the Chinese zodiac, with each track embodying the spirit of a different zodiac animal.
    • Michigan is a concept album about the state of Michigan.
    • Illinois is a concept album about the state of Illinois. (The Avalanche also consists entirely of Illinois-themed songs.)
    • The BQE is an orchestral concept album about the eponymous New York expressway.
    • Carrie & Lowell isn't strictly a concept album, but it is all about Stevens' grieving process following the death of his mother and has a clear narrative structure. (It was also, apparently, first conceived as a concept album about Oregon, and still contains a number of references to the state.)
    • Planetarium is a collaborative concept album about the solar system.
    • Each disc of Convocations is meant to evoke a particular emotional concept (meditation, celebration, etc.).
    • Each track on A Beginner's Mind is loosely inspired by a different film (you can see the full list on the Shout Out page).
    • Both Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold could be considered concept albums about Christmas.
    • Stalker, the unreleased and "rediscovered" album that may or may not have been recorded by a young Sufjan, is written from the perspective of a stalker.
  • Concept Video: "Sugar" shows a family dancing while their house slowly falls into ruin, both metaphorically and literally.
  • 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!
    • Drake's "Hotline Bling" was his song of choice for the Carrie & Lowell tour's encore, and it even 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.
    • He reimagined Moses Sumney's "Make Out in My Car" for Sumney's EP of the same name. True to form, Suf transformed the song from a sexy slowjam to a wistful acoustic number complete with religious imagery.
    • In 2021 he released a vinyl-only cover of Nick Drake's "Pink Moon", to accompany an art book by Marcel Dzama. It's a split record, with Hannah Peel's cover of the same song on the other side.
  • Crappy Holidays: "Casimir Pulaski Day" and a number of Anti-Christmas songs listed above.
  • 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.
    • "America" takes this so far that it's been referred to as Break Up Song with God. (Though Word of God says otherwise.)
  • 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 and the emotional toll it took on him, Carrie and Lowell is easily his heaviest album lyrically.
    • Though less rooted in personal traumas than most of his earlier releases, The Ascension confronts the more universal hopelessness of the post-2016 social and political climate.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The album art for The Greatest Gift, as well as the original album art for A Sun Came.
  • Denser and Wackier: Illinois took the formula from Michigan but made the compositions more baroque, the song titles more manic, the Shout Outs more frequent, and the cover art more tongue-in-cheek.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: The album cover for The B.Q.E..
  • Destructive Romance:
    • "Drawn to the Blood" ("The strength of his arm / my lover caught me off guard")
    • "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: Convocations is a Distinct Five-part Album, each part (Meditations, Lamentations, Revelations, Celebrations and Incantations) released weekly over the span of one month.
  • Disturbed Doves: "America":
    The dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia.
  • Double Entendre: "A Winner Needs a Wand" is ostensibly about the confines of masculinity, and the "wand" of the title is... a metaphor.
  • 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").
    • The narrator of "The Only Thing" comes close to this, fantasizing about driving off a cliff and slitting his arms in a bath, but decides against it after surveying the beautiful things he still sees in life.
  • 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!".
    Once a great place;
    now a prison.
  • 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, as well as a slew of individual songs from both albums.
  • 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 Title Track from The Ascension, which comes just before the sprawling album-closer "America" and presents the most stripped-down and straightforward expression of the record's themes of doubt, survival, and forward movement.
  • 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 "Impossible Soul" at 25:35. Also deserving mention are "Djohariah" (17:03), "The Child with the Star on His Head" (15:30), "Earth" (15:10), "Year of the Horse" (13:19), "America" (12:30), "Christmas Unicorn" (12:28), "All Delighted People (original version)" (11:38), "My Rajneesh" (10:29), "You Are the Blood" (10:14), "Year of the Dragon" (9:27), "Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)" (9:24), "Do You Hear What I Hear?" (9:14), "Year of the Rat" (8:23), "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" (8:21), "All Delighted People (classic rock version)" (8:07), "Age of Adz" (8:00)...
    • Seven Swans, The B.Q.E. and Carrie and Lowell are the only albums to run for less than an hour.
    • All Delighted People, supposedly an EP, clocks in at 59 minutes.
    • If you include the B-Side ("My Rajneesh"), the "America" single is nearly 23 minutes long.
  • 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:
    • Songs for Christmas is a collection of songs for Christmas.
    • Several of the song titles on Illinois do this:
      • "One Last 'Whoo-Hoo!' For The Pullman" (has only one lyric: "Whoo-hoo!")
      • "A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze" (20 seconds of a droning synth)
      • "Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few" (almost a minute of variations on a single trumpet note)
  • Fading into the Next Song: Used all over the place on Illinois, and less conspicuously elsewhere.
    • The transition from "Death Star" to "Goodbye To All That" on The Ascension is a notable non-Illinois example. The instrumentation and background vocals from the first track continue well into the second, and it's easy to miss that a new song has even started until the lyrics kick in.
  • Face on the Cover: The original album art for A Sun Came; the re-release changed it to a fantasy illustration.
  • Five Stages of Grief: Each of the five parts of Convocations is meant to represent a stage of grief.
  • Flyover Country: Played with, deconstructed, and subverted on both Michigan and Illinois. By choosing to focus on two supposedly boring Midwestern states full of Everytown, America-type locales, Sufjan is able to dig deep into the surprisingly fascinating history and culture of these places and make some bigger points about America itself.
  • 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?
  • Genre-Busting: 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.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: "To Be Alone with You", "The Greatest Gift", "Ursa Major".
  • 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, centering around Sufjan's late mother.
    • "Casimir Pulaski Day", about a late friend of the narrator.
  • Hellish Horse: There's a whole gaggle of them in the cover art for the reissue of A Sun Came!
  • Hippie Parents: According to various interviews, Sufjan's parents.
  • Hollywood California: Evoked by the title and lyrics of "Fictional California" (with regards to "California State College", the nonexistent university where Bring It On Again is set).
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Even more egregiously, the America single (with the b-side) is more than half the length of the entire Carrie & Lowell LP!
  • Instrumentals: About half of Illinois, The Avalanche, and Planetarium; the entirety of Enjoy Your Rabbit, Run Rabbit Run, The BQE, The Decalogue, and Convocations; all but one track on Aporia; three tracks on Michigan; and quite a few on his Christmas albums, too.
    • The press release for Convocations sums it up nicely:
    It may be tempting to reduce Convocations into a longform ambient anomaly within Sufjan Stevens' vast catalogue. It is, however, neither an anomaly nor entirely ambient. This is not a side project. From his numerous dance scores for New York City Ballet to instrumental albums such as Enjoy Your Rabbit, Aporia, and The BQE, Stevens spends at least half his working life making largely instrumental music, as he has for decades.
  • 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 My Beloved to Be Happy: "Enchanting Ghost":
    And if it pleases you to leave me, just go;
    stopping you would stifle your enchanting ghost.
  • "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.
    • The Ascension has a few:
      • "Die Happy" (the only line, repeated 20+ times, is "I wanna die happy")
      • "Ursa Major" ("I wanna love You / I wanna love You / Until the Earth runs through it")
      • "Video Game" is an "I don't want" song (I don't wanna play / I don't wanna play / I don't wanna play your video game")
  • Lighter and Softer:
    • Though not without thematic darkness, the gentle instrumentation and devotional lyrics of Michigan (and to a lesser extent Seven Swans) served as this following the heavy angst and experimentation of A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit.
    • The relatively sunny and accessible A Beginner's Mind also served this function after a long spate of thematically dark and/or sonically challenging albums in the 2010s and early '20s.
  • 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.
    • "Die Happy": the only lyric is "I wanna die happy".
  • 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 multiple things that the existentially bereft narrator deems Worth Living For.
    • The chorus of "The Hidden River of My Life" consists of a list of things Sufjan (or maybe the state of Oregon) is. ("I'm a lover, yeah, I'm a reaper, Subaru driver, satellite receiver...")
  • Literary Allusion Title:
    • "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is based on the short story of the same name by Flannery O’Connor, and "In The Devil's Territory" takes its title from a phrase in one of O'Connor's essays.
    • A number of Suf's song titles reference biblical figures and concepts, but "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" is pulled directly from Isaiah 55:12, and "Get Behind Me, Santa!" is a riff on Matthew 16:23 (with Santa standing in for Satan).
    • The tracklist from The Ascension gives us a whole slew of literary and film allusions:
      • "Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse" (from a line in The Godfather)
      • "Lamentations" (given Sufjan's thematic history, almost definitely a reference to the Old Testament book)
      • "Gilgamesh" (from the eponymous epic)
      • "Death Star" (from Star Wars)
      • "Goodbye to All That" (from Joan Didion's essay of the same name; Didion's title, in turn, is an allusion to Robert Graves' 1929 memoir)
      • "The Ascension" (draws from both the biblical Ascension of Jesus and possibly—given the song's Shout Outs to King Lear—the conflict over who will "ascend" to the English throne in the play.)
    • Given that A Beginner's Mind is a concept album about films, many of the titles include movie references. "Lady Macbeth in Chains" (inspired by the film All About Eve) is probably most "literary" title, however, given that it also includes a Shakespeare reference.
  • 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", "Tonya Harding", and "My Rajneesh" 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," "The Seer's Tower," and "The Owl and the Tanager" are all piano-led songs that 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.
  • 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 come in at below DR8 overall since 2001. Carrie & Lowell is DR10 even on the CD edition. Overall, his songs may have mild dynamic range compression applied to them, but they don't clip at all. Enjoy Your Rabbit is the odd early exception, with a score of DR7, noticeable clipping throughout the album, and two songs ("Year of the Tiger" and "Year of the Dragon") coming in at DR4. This could also, to some extent, have been a deliberate artistic choice, given that it represents an Out-of-Genre Experience in Stevens' discography.
  • 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.
    • The Title Track from Age of Adz culminates in a soaring, triumphant crescendo of horns and electronics. The lyrics? "I've lost the will to fight / I was not made for life."
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • The false sense of security created by "Futile Devices", the gentle acoustic guitar song which opens The Age of Adz, is quickly crushed by the unnerving robotic beeps and whirs which kick off "Too Much" and will dominate the rest of the album. Also 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."
    • On The Ascension, the triumphant love anthem "Tell Me You Love Me" gives way to the two most sinister-sounding songs on the album, "Die Happy" and "Ativan".
  • Mr. Fanservice: While Suf himself doesn't go out of his way to flaunt it (give or take the occasional sleeveless shirt), he's a strikingly handsome man with a surprisingly muscular physique. A sizable portion of the fanbase views him this way, and many casual listeners are surprised to discover what he looks like after hearing his singing voice.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • The Ascension marks a return to the electronic experimentation of The Age of Adz and some of Sufjan's side projects, but takes it in the direction of full-blown Synth-Pop.
  • No Medication for Me: Averted in "Ativan" ("Tranquilize me, sanitize me / Ativan, my leading woman").
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Casimir Pulaski Day", "Holland", and "Come on, Feel the Illinoise!", to name a few.
  • No Title: The tracks of Convocations (which are all instrumentals) all lack distinct titles, only being named after the respective part followed by a Roman numeral (I through X, except for Incantations which stops at IX).
    • Likewise, each track on The Decalogue is titled solely with a Roman numeral, I through X.
  • 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 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", "Gilgamesh".
    • 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".
  • Orchestral Version: Run Rabbit Run is a string quartet reimagining of the Enjoy Your Rabbit album, arranged with assistance from various contemporary composers and performed by the group Osso.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: Enjoy Your Rabbit saw a foray from his indie folk-y roots into noisy, chaotic glitch. This proved to be only the first of many such experiments over the course of his career.
  • 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".
  • Pep-Talk Song: "Majesty Snowbird", "The Dress Looks Nice on You," "Love Yourself."
    • 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 is soft and quite delicate, with a lot of falsetto. Occasionally he goes for a more energetic sound (notably on The Age of Adz), but not without causing an audible strain to his voice.
  • 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.
  • Phrase Salad Lyrics: "Sugar", according to Sufjan himself:
    "On the surface the song is just a string of clichés, but the message is imperative: now is the time to gather what is good and pure and valuable and make it your own, and share it with others..."
  • 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.
    • In 2017, he provided a number of original songs for the score of Call Me by Your Name, one of which got him nominated for an Academy Award.
    • In a somewhat unusual twist on this trope, he has also scored a number of ballets; The Decalogue is the only one so far to get an album release.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • "I'm not fucking around" (ad infinitum) 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."
  • Progressive Rock: "Progressive folk" might be a fair categorisation for much of his music, what with the odd time signatures, lengthy, multi-part epics (sometimes split up into multiple tracks), and general weirdness of much of it. Some of his albums have much more to do with this genre than others, though.
  • Protest Song: Publicity and interviews for The Ascension heavily emphasized that it was his most political album to date. The songs themselves are still much more understated and ambiguous than this genre tends to be, but it's not hard to find a political undercurrent in tracks like "America" and "Death Star".
  • 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-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!: 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. Other examples from his catalog can be seen on the Ho Yay page.
  • Radio Friendliness: Very low on the scale of radio support, due to his songs being too long / artsy / 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:
    • He's released five different versions of "Chicago": the original, the acoustic version, the "adult contemporary easy listening" version, the "Multiple Personality Disorder" version, and the demo version.
      • There are now also at least six versions of "Fourth of July" spread across his discography: the album version, the live version, the PPD remix (B-side to the "Exploding Whale" single), the 900X remix (from The Greatest Gift), and the April Base and DUMBO versions (demo recordings released together as a single in 2022).
    • 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).
    • The Greatest Gift EP includes remixes and demo versions of several Carrie and Lowell tracks, and the recordings on the C&L Live Album often feature extensive rearrangement as well.
    • In addition to two all-new tracks, Suf (or, technically, his sometimes-producer/collaborator Doveman) contributed a piano-led "remix" of "Futile Devices" to the Call Me by Your Name soundtrack.
    • A handful of traditional carols and hymns on his Christmas albums get this treatment.
    • His indietronica song "Love Yourself" was released alongside a folk demo (recorded 23 years prior!) and an ambient synth/piano reprise.
  • 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).
  • Religion Rant Song: "America" is an attack against the sickness of modern American culture, especially the part shaped by Christianity.
  • Rhyming with Itself:
    • "Tonya Harding" has two instances: "Well, this world is a cold one / But it takes one to know one", and "Well, this world is a bitch, girl / Don't end up in a ditch, girl."
    • "The Upper Peninsula" has two examples within four lines (at least if you count "ideas" and "idea" and "times" and "sometimes" as the same words):
      In strange ideas
      and stranger times
      I've no idea
      what's right sometimes
  • 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-Empowerment Anthem: "Love Yourself," which was released to coincide with Pride 2019 and is Exactly What It Says on the Tin, lyrically. Suf also donated a portion of the proceeds to organizations that assist LGBTQ youth.
  • Self-Harm: Referenced extensively throughout Carrie & Lowell.
    • The narrator of "The Owl and the Tanager" is a cutter.
  • Sequel Song: "Goodbye to All That" (from The Ascension) can be read as one for "Chicago" (Illinois). The earlier song is about the narrator searching for freedom by driving to New York City, "in a van, with my friend." The later piece is based on Sufjan's move out of New York, and starts with the narrator "alone in my car." (Worth noting that "Chicago" is probably meant in part as a reference the Carl Sandburg poem of the same name—Sandburg gets a shout-out a few tracks earlier—while "Goodbye to All That" borrows its title from a Joan Didion essay about the author's disillusioned departure from New York.)
  • Sesquipedalian Smith: Sufjan himself. And he has a brother named Marzuki Stevens and sisters named Djohariah Stevens and Djamilah Stevens.
  • Shout-Out: Now has its own page.
  • Shown Their Work: Illinois and The Avalanche are dense with allusions to geography and local history.
  • 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", "Love Yourself", "With My Whole Heart", "Tell Me You Love Me".
  • 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".
    • "Vesuvius", with its Talking to Themself lyrics:
      Sufjan, the panic inside, the murdering ghost that you cannot ignore
    • "Joy! Joy! Joy!" has this mid-song exchange:
      Hey, Shar?
      Yes, Sufjan?
      So, what do you believe in?
      Oh, a lot of things.
      Oh yeah, like what?
      Well, peace and justice for all...
  • Singing Voice Dissonance: He has a high singing voice, and often veers into falsetto; his regular speaking voice is noticeably deeper.
  • Snowy Sleigh Bells: Used extensively in his Christmas songs.
  • The Something Song: "Vito's Ordination Song".
  • 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!").
  • Spoken Word in Music: One of A Sun Came's biggest examples of Early-Installment Weirdness is in its numerous several spoken-word interludes; aside from the rarity of such tracks on a Sufjan album, they also contained quite grotesque imagery and were performed by a notably chipmunk-voiced individual.
  • 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?"
    • "We're Goin' To the Country!" ends with someone saying "That was great."
  • Sucks at Dancing: Sufjan himself. Not that it's a bad thing.
  • Take That!:
    • "We Are What You Say" appears to be a diss track directed at, of all things, the LDS Church.
    • "Come On, Feel the Illinoise!" is a diatribe against commercialism and bad art.
  • 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, The Avalanche, All Delighted People, The Age of Adz, Carrie & Lowell, The Greatest Gift, The Ascension, and A Beginner's Mind 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" (with sections in 4/4, 5/8, and 6/8) 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" takes the POV of the serial killer antagonist from Flannery O'Connor's short story of the same name.
    • "Cimmerian Shade" and "The Pillar of Souls" show some sympathy to the villains from The Silence of the Lambs and the Hellraiser franchise, respectively.
  • 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.
    • "I'm not fucking around," which appears midway through "I Want to Be Well", is repeated more than a dozen times in an increasingly frantic fashion, and was Sufjan's first lyrical use of profanity up to that point in his discography.
  • Wretched Hive: Detroit in "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!".
    Once a great place,
    now a prison.
  • 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".