You can’t accuse this enormously talented multi-instrumentalist and composer of ordinary ambition or inadequate work habits; he has, in a short span, created quasi song cycles from Emersonian nature, the Chinese zodiac, his home state of Michigan and Christianity. If at times the imagery seems arch and the sentiments slightly askew and half-baked, there is such a profusion of charm, intelligence and hook-laden pop to make Stevens one of the few important singer-songwriters in America today. The chimerical albums are rife with nervous optimism, boundless imagination and endearing private obsessions.
The obsessions were spelled out in miniature form in his first band, Marzuki; by his solo debut, Stevens was a fully-formed artist, courageous enough to incorporate Celtic rhythms, Middle East instrumentation, studio doodling and a brashly euphoric sense of the upward limits of what constitutes pop song structure. A Sun Came! is a knockout. It’s overlong, lyrically pretentious, tiresomely whimsical — and yet it’s a bold, risk-taking attempt to incorporate the introverted idiosyncrasies of Beck with the overblown romanticism of Badly Drawn Boy. Colored with somber orchestra, the grinding and grim “Demetrius” stretches a fragile melody to meet the gorgeous harmonies. “A Winner Needs a Wand” is polished, sweet and remarkably inventive, walking the line between abundant creativity and insular self-absorption. For all of its proud chauvinistic impulse towards youth, Michigan and nature, the record is at times silly and tepidly and prematurely hatched. Stevens made the entire record by himself (with a few minor additions) on a 4-track; his studio wizardry and considerable orchestral insouciance at times belie his considerable songwriting skill.
If the second half of A Sun Came! can seem bewilderingly eccentric, the concept, imagination and execution of Enjoy Your Rabbit is at time downright bizarre. The addled idea is to sonically incarnate the Chinese zodiac (Year of the Ox, Snake, Horse, etc.). Many of the sounds — “songs” would be stretching the word’s definition — are references to the actual animals: chattering monkeys, slithering snakes. It’s a boar (get it?), but a fascinating one. It’s also longer than a Chinese New Year.
Having moved to New York, Stevens made the brilliant Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State with other members of the Sounds Familre label family, including the loopy and experimental Danielson Famile, in which Stevens regularly plays banjo. The newcomers add the human element lacking from the first two records. Borrowing from sources as divergent as Robert Wyatt, High Llamas, early Neil Young and the Shaggs, the record breathlessly tours the broken dreams of Michigan and elsewhere — Flint’s unemployed, prison-like Detroit, summer madness, Romulus seeking his family, an absent God. The music is tighter, swirling, turning in on itself near the end, failing to register cheap climaxes and thus gaining in rich ambiguity. Sleigh bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, banjo and muted French horn add depth and formidable anti-commercial power. No matter how fey and intentionally dated the album sounds, the songs are emotional storehouses of sadness, regret and absence. A great record.
Stevens’ fourth release is his best to date: the related songs on Seven Swans seek to connect traces of Christian meaning. A reference to Flannery O’Connor, a banjo-driven minimalist ballad opener and a climatic acceptance of transfiguration make this Stevens’ most personal and focused album. Produced by Daniel Smith, it’s so quiet that Stevens’ rasp complicates the simplistic sweetness of the melodies and presentation. The rhythmic brawn and swagger of the first two albums is gone; there are no galloping gaits, no bubbling heatedness. With matchless imagery, joy for God and music stripped down to its essentials, Seven Swans has its own unique sound, stylistically beholden to no one. This quiet document of fervor and belief and frenzy is cathedral music for a religious anarchist.
Part Tubular Bells, part epiphanic expansion of a Christian life and part greetings postcard, Illinois is a lush, orchestrated work which continues Stevens’ march to madness: one album for every United state. The Smith family by now is deeply ensconced in Stevens’ DIY studio world, a world where he allows desperate death-ridden themes to be contained by less bleak intervening song cycles, amusing musical vignettes and heavenly choruses of youthful sophistication. These songs, stoic acceptances of Stevens’ outsider status, are vulnerable revelations scurrying across antic mini pieces that do not necessarily congeal. The music fades into tranquility; the lyrics list Illini glory and shame (Ferris Wheel vs. John Wayne Gacy); the sense of affirmation is muted by questions and self- doubt. Stevens acutely exchanges a variety of wind instruments for differing tonal colors; his lyrics, when they explore doubt, ominous superstitions and ghostly, resonant surfaces, are superior and clever. However, Illinois breaks no new musical ground for this talented artist. This song cycle is less about a particular state than it is about Stevens’ elegant façade of cleverness.