SUFJAN ON OTHERS
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Sufjan Stevens. I like the idea behind his music, the boundaries he’s breaking, and all that. I even like the songs, one at a time. The problem is when you listen to a full album all the cuteness gives me a headache. It’s just all so…precious. His style I wouldn’t have thought would lend itself to covering others, but the opposite is true. He picks the perfect songs to do, ones that he can transform into his style without bastardizing or warping them.
Sufjan Stevens – Ring Them Bells (Bob Dylan)
I have hundreds of Dylan covers, so to say this is one of the best is pretty high praise. For the soundtrack to the recent Dylan quasi-bio I’m Not There, Sufjan took a lesser-known track off of 1989’s Oh Mercy and, well, made it sound like a Sufjan Stevens song. Where Bob’s version is ponderous and thoughtful, Sufjan’s is sprightly and nimble, with tinkling pianos, shiny backing vocals, and the unexpected addition of blasting horns.
Sufjan Stevens – Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Another song Sufjan all but reinvents, paring the wailing original pared back a bit (a rare approach for Sufjan), or at least seeming to with the xylophones, strings and trumpets tastefully used. The tempo and structure jumps back and forth, finally leading to a chorus with more energy behind it than he usually puts forth.
Sufjan Stevens – Variation on ‘Commemorative Transfiguration and Communion at Magruder Park’ (John Fahey)
Mostly an instrumental, this song becomes quintessential Sufjan with the harmonies, flutes, and all-around prettiness. I personally wish he’d stripped it back, cause that plucked solo guitar line that periodically emerges doesn’t need the frills. An extra bonus, almost a separate cover, is the gorgeous version of the Hallelujah Chorus he tacks on the end.
Sufjan Stevens – She Is (Tim Buckley)
Finally, something simpler. Sufjan puts his voice front and center as he slows down Buckley’s far more aggressive original.
Sufjan Stevens – What Goes On (The Beatles)
The Beatles are notoriously difficult to cover. How do you improve on perfection? Most artists just stick closely to the original, which all but defeats the purpose of the cover. Sufjan at least doesn’t fall into that trap, combing a slow bell-full chorus with a more rocking verse structure using, believe it or not, electric guitars! Didn’t realize Sufjan knew those existed. Over twice as long as the original, with instrumental meltdown halfway through, making it almost unrecognizable.
Sufjan Stevens – Holy Holy Holy (Reginald Heber)
From his just-released album of Christmas originals and covers, he stays faithful to the original tune here, with his breathy vocals sounding like a private prayer more than a public performance.
OTHERS ON SUFJAN
Sufjan’s songs tend to have about twenty sections each, with instrument parts intricately arranged in a way that seems impenetrable. If you take that all out though, you realize he creates beautiful and simple melodies, which the artists below capitalize on in different ways. He could learn a lesson from these: not every song needs a goddamn flute.
Doron Diamond – For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti (Sufjan Stevens)
There are hundreds of Sufjan covers on youtube, almost all of which are worthless. So I wasn’t even gonna bother searching around until another blog pointed me in the direction of this one, a gorgeous solo-banjo take on the track from the first state concept album Michigan.
XN – Vito’s Ordination Song (Sufjan Stevens)
A really slow-burner here, a couple guitars meandering around each other before an atonal horn and percussion sneaks in. The original’s words have vanished though, as singing against this arrhythmic build would be all but impossible. Good by itself, but probably even better on acid.
David Crowder Band – Oh God Where Are You Now (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?) (Sufjan Stevens)
Above we saw Sufjan covering a Christian song, so here’s a Christian rock group covering Sufjan. Piano and quiet chimes back a wavering and heartbreaking vocal that builds through a repeated “da da da” that says more than actual words could. I’m pretty sure Crowder doesn’t think God is specifically in Michigan though. Damn this guy has some long song titles though.
Indie Blockdapella – Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Sufjan Stevens)
Enough with Michigan, let’s switch to the state that really matters: Illinois. Nathan Smart vocalizes all the parts on this one, basically what you’d expect an acapella version of this song to sound like. Which is a good thing.
Microfilm – Chicago (Sufjan Stevens)
My favorite of the bunch, an electropop that trashes the cuteness of the original and makes it a dance tune with Radiohead-esq programming.
Ryan Carey – Casimir Pulaski Day (Sufjan Stevens)
Not hugely different than the original in terms of arrangement, a strummed acoustic guitar, but I like the vocals better on this one. More direct and less breathy, highlighting the great lyrics instead of simply how cute Sufjan is.
Rockabye Baby – Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time! (Sufjan Stevens)
The excited title on this one is exactly the opposite of this version which, as you might guess from the group/conglomerate who perform this, is a lyric-less lullaby. The melody has strong similarities to Chicago, but the sounds couldn’t be more different.