Erlewine asks: Is Sufjan Stevens Vastly Overrated?

Even as one AMG reviewer praises Sufjan Stevens’ The Avalanche, another — Stephen Thomas Erlewine, one of AMG’s most prolific reviewers — has posted a strikingly different assessment of Stevens’ work.

I know there are several Stevens listeners reading here. What do you think?

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  • eucharisto

    Yes indeed. I apologize for the miscommunication, my wording was misleading. My point is that Mr. Erlewine misinterprets, or perhaps misses the point of that extended metaphor, not that he failed to see one.
    The tone of parts of the article seem to indicate that Erlewine sees the “extended metaphors” as absent-minded, careless musings, such as his allusion to Sufjan’s “adolescent fascination” with John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, which opus touched on earlier. Perhaps, at their base level, they kind of are simply random musings.
    But work at them a while and you find the hidden meaning beneath the surface. Perhaps that is Erlewine’s major problem, that he took Sufjan on face value.
    And perhaps that is Sufjan’s greatest fault, that in the commotion provided by his unique musicality, many deep truths he has hidden are missed.

  • Joel

    That’s what a conceit is, though, Eucharisto — an extended metaphor. Sufjan did this in a smaller form on his Enjoy Your Rabbit record, the framework (or conceit) being the Chinese zodiac.

    (As an aside, I believe I’ve read an interview or two in which Stevens says he’s probably not really going to go for all 50.)

  • eucharisto

    I would expect that for the first time listener, Sufjan couldn’t seem anything but absurd. His music on first listen really is quite preposterous. Erlewine is right in that regard.
    But Sufjan is a subtle writer, not a blatant one. He hides his brilliance behind a jangle of strange music. The truths that he lays out across his album are hidden nuggets, not bold letters.
    And though I also respect and admire Mr. Erlewine as a reviewer, I believe he misses the point when he alludes to the “conceit” of writing an album for each of the 50 states.
    For those who have listened to Sufjan long enough, it’s clear that his project is a vehicle for conveying truth. Yeah, it’s fun to see all 50 states get a CD (go CO!); however, the reason I love Sujan is for the truth he conveys in small bites.
    You said sometime last year, Jeffery, that the CD was brilliant simply for Casimir Pulaski Day, and John Wayne Gacy Jr. I think you hit it right on the head in saying so.

  • lbrodine

    I think Andy and Gene have said what I would say, namely concerning the introspective nature of Sufjan’s writing.

    As a songwriter/musician, I try to find ways to challenge myself to grow as a writer; give myself a specific set of confines and try to work my way out of it. For me, Sufjan has taken a huge challenge (not that I assume he will ever get all 50 states on individual records) to explore the human soul through the personal stories of real people. He illustrates his own view of the world with brilliant shades of human longing, regret, sorrow, and even joy. The music is what evokes this last qulaity most of all, showing beauty still exists when feeling the pain of the human condition.

    I don’t care if Sujan comes off as being pretentious. I don’t know many artists who don’t come off that way to some degree. For that matter, the same goes for music critics and eveyone else on the face of the earth. (note: when it comes down to it, there are unpretentious people on this earth, but I probably never realize it because the most humble man in the room doesn’t realize that he’s being humble… correct me if I’m worng I think that’s from C.S. Lewis)

  • Gene Branaman

    Andy, you nailed it – especially about Erlewine’s problem with the John Wayne Gacy song, he totally missed the whole point of that song.

    And I find Stevens’ songs to have a heart felt depth that is conveyed as much through his arrangements as in his lyrics. I know what Erlewine means when he refers to the “school report” nature of some of the songs on Seven Swans, for example, but the pensive & introspective arrangements completes the mood of songs like Abraham & they become more meaningful has a whole. (It makes me wonder what Erlewine would think of REM’s early stuff if it were to come out today.) My favorite artists are those who put as much thought & emphasis on the music as the lyrics &, for me, Stevens does this. This makes for more challenging & fulfilling recordings. Recent albums by Andrew Bird, Nickel Creek, & Josh Rouse confirm this for me.

    I wonder what Erlewine thinks of Radiohead? Their blend of dense arrangements & cryptic lyrics Radiohead can be as much an acquired taste as is Stevens for many folks.

  • Anders

    Andy, I can’t wait until your reviews start appearing on AMG. Always a pleasure to read.

  • Andy Whitman

    It’s inevitable that a Sufjan backlash would ensue upon the release of whatever followed “Illinois.” That album was both universally heralded and overhyped, and I think Erlewine is right to insist that the hype doesn’t match the reality of the music. So Sufjan
    the Wunderkind isn’t the second coming of Mozart. Okay, I’ll buy that. But he’s still very good, and a lot better than Erlewine is willing to admit.

    He also totally misses the point of songs like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” which isn’t about an adolescent obsession, as Erlewine claims, but about the darkness at the heart of every individual — including Sufjan the Wunderkind — and which can turn even oboe and banjo players into mass murderers.

    I think Erlewine either misses or overlooks the many personal moments on “Illinois” that transform the album into far more than a geographical checklist. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is the obvious example, and if it has anything to do with geography, it is the nameless and universal geography of loss and grief. Even the songs that namecheck Illinois cities and landmarks — “Chicago” and “Jacksonville” — have far more to do with internal journeys and changes than they do with encyclopedic facts and figures. Sufjan isn’t playing musical Jeopardy here. He’s exploring his soul, as all good songwriters do.

    Somehow it seems that Erlewine misses this. I understand, on one hand, the cynical reaction that almost had to follow the effusive outpouring that came with “Illinois.” I still think that Sufjan is a very good songwriter, even if he is not brilliant, and that he manages to sound like no one but himself. I would also agree with Erlewine that “The Avalanche” is not as good as “Illinois.” No kidding. “The Avalanche” consists of outtakes from “Illinois,” and usually outtakes are outtakes for a reason.

    That said, “The Avalanche” reminds me all over again about what it is that I love about Sufjan — his obsessive nerd tendencies combined with a soft, compassionate heart, and an ability to concoct dazzling arrangements. That’s still a good combination, and I’m enjoying it all over again on the new album.

  • opus

    I’m as big a fan of Sufjan’s music as anyone, but Erlewine does raise some valid points. I don’t think Sufjan’s music is as precocious, childish, surface-level, or insular as Erlewine seems to. And I think the “thoroughly researched, spit-shined, and presented for the class” is part of the bookish charm.

    However, I do hope that Sufjan does branch out more, musically-speaking, on subsequent albums. After three albums that, while quite different in many ways, still explore a lot of the same musical territory (Michigan, Illinois, The Avalanche), he needs to start breaking away from the folky, baroque pop mold. True, he’s very good at it, but he’s too good to stay with it forever.

  • jasdye


    is he on top 40 radio?

  • M. Dale Prins

    I suspect that I’d find Sufjan incredibly overrated if I didn’t love him so much — he’s just that kind of musician.