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YMMV / Sufjan Stevens

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  • Applicability: He prefers to leave the interpretation of his songs to the listener.
    Intention finishes its work once a piece is created. I believe in a very democratic reader-response to art, that everyone has a unique experience and, though they may not always be valuable, or believable, or accurate, they’re all viable.
  • Award Snub: Many were unhappy when his song "Mystery of Love" (from Call Me by Your Name) lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to Coco's "Remember Me".
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  • Breakthrough Hit: "Chicago", which has remained his Signature Song.
  • Broken Base: "Which Sufjan album is his best", with absolutely every single one of his main releases in between Michigan and Carrie & Lowell inspiring a near equal number of fervent arguments from fans. With critics the competition is mainly in-between Illinois and C&L, the latter being his most critically acclaimed album to date (albeit by one measly point).
  • Catharsis Factor: His songs are a good way to work through loss, grief, melancholy, et al. Special mention goes to Carrie & Lowell: performing the music reportedly helped Stevens get over the self-destructive ways he fell into after his mother's death.
  • Creator Breakdown:
    • The Age of Adz happened as a result of a depression / neural illness that Stevens suffered from, which explains the album's atmosphere of what Stevens described as "hysterical melodrama".
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    • Carrie & Lowell was a means for Stevens to cope with his mother's death.
  • Even Better Sequel: While Michigan was well-received when it came out, Illinois, with its more grandiose and maximalist sound and its more complex lyrical content, absolutely outdid the earlier album critically, and is in fact the highest-rated album of 2005 on Metacritic.
  • Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: His songs are rife with religious or spiritual undertones, and some are definitely about faith (e.g. everything on Seven Swans); however, there are listeners who will try to put a religious spin on lyrics that are quite clearly about relationships or mental health.
  • Fridge Horror:
    • Listeners who aren't familiar with Illinois history and/or don't pay close enough attention to the lyrics may have this kind of reaction when they realize that "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is a song about a serial killer.
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    • On first listen, it's easy to miss that "Drawn to the Blood" is about Domestic Abuse.
  • Genius Bonus: Knowledge of American geography, history and literature, and of Greek mythology and Christiniaty, really enhances the listening experience. Some examples:
    • In "Come on Feel the Illinoise!", "Columbia" refers to the United States (as in, land of Columbus) and to the Chicago World Expo, which was called the Columbia World Fair. "Ancient hieroglyphic" and "South Pacific" refer to Cairo Street and the Japan Pavillion at the Fair, and the song also references many inventions unveiled at the event, from the Ferris Wheel to Cream of Wheat.
    • The "demogorgon" referenced in "Wallowa Lake Monster" is the two-headed prince of darkness — an apt metaphor for someone suffering from bipolar disorder.
    • Off Carrie & Lowell:
      • "Death with Dignity" is titled after the Oregon Death with Dignity Act on physician-assisted suicide.
      • "Blue Bucket of Gold" is titled after a legendary lost gold mine, as a metaphor for a mythical promise of an unattainble treasure (in this case, a mother's love).
      • In "Should Have Known Better", "Rose of Aaron's beard" refers simultaneously to the Oregon town of Roseburg, founded by one Aaron Rose, and to Aaron's Beard, a flower containing chemicals used to manufacture antidepressants. "The breakers in the bar" refers to the waves at the Columbia River Bar.
      • "Tillamook Burn" was a series of forest fires in the first half of the 20th century.
    • There are a number of references to the work of Flannery O’Connor sprinkled throughout the Seven Swans album. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is titled after and based on an O'Connor short story, "In the Devil's Territory" takes its title from a line in Mystery and Manners, "Size Too Small" contains the phrase "everything rises, going at it all," which could be read as a reference to O'Connor's story "Everything That Rises Must Converge," and the title track has a lot in common thematically with her two novels, The Violent Bear it Away and Wise Blood.
  • Growing the Beard: His first two albums — A Sun Came (indie rock) and Enjoy Your Rabbit (electronica) - didn't make much of a splash with either critics or audiences, but his third album, Michigan, finally put him on the map, thanks to its narrative-driven songs, more overt folk influences, and a geographical concept worn proudly on its (album) sleeve.
  • Harsher in Hindsight: The autobiographical Carrie & Lowell adds context to some of Stevens's earlier songs; e.g. "Romulus", about a child ashamed of his Missing Mom, can now be assumed to have a Reality Subtext.
  • Ho Yay: Has its own page.
  • LGBT Fanbase: He has a rather sizeable one, thanks to the homoerotic content of some of his songs and his own ambiguous sexuality. (Him scoring Call Me by Your Name in 2017 didn't hurt, either.) As an article on Jezebel put it:
    There is a specific queer loneliness in the music of Sufjan Stevens that has made him a central cultural figure to a generation of queer people — cis gay men, especially — with an affinity for melancholy.
    • Suf released the "Love Yourself" single—complete with rainbow album art!—explicitly to coincide with Pride Month 2019 (and donated a portion of the proceeds to organizations that assist LGBTQ youth).
  • Memetic Mutation: Just about every aspect of Sufjan's music and persona have been subject to affectionate meme-ing from the fanbase. Popular targets include his uncommon first name, his lengthy Michigan and Illinois-era song titles, his frequent use of the banjo, and his unique blending of Christian spirituality with frank explorations of grief and sexual identity.
  • Painful Rhyme:
    • "The Avalanche" has Sufjan rhyming "Virginia" with "you had it in ya".
    • "Impossible Soul" has "feather" rhymed with "however".
    • "Decatur" thrives on this. The first verse rhymes "Decatur" with "hate her," "take her," and "alligator."
    • "Peoria! Destroy-a!" from "Prairie Fire That Wanders About." (If you can't tell, the Illinois / Avalanche era saw Suf doing a lot of lyrical gymnastics in order to accommodate the many, many Shouted-Out place names.)
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: See Creator Breakdown, above.
  • Song Association: "Chicago" was used in Little Miss Sunshine and was included on the soundtrack.
  • They Changed It, Now It Sucks!: Some were not receptive towards the drastic sound change exhibited on The Age of Adz.
  • Throw It In!: Ambient noises (like the sound of the air conditioning) can be heard in the background of many of his recordings.


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