Sufjan Stevens creates a unique sound world, crafting complex, often existential, stories alternately inhabited by natural wonders, a serial killer and God. To Stevens, this is his folk music: storytelling with intricate songswith large-ensemble instrumentation in a live setting. In concert at the Cat’s Cradle on Sunday, Sept. 25th, he and his band, The Illinoisemakers, will put on Stevens’ latest pop play, songs from the album Come On Feel The Illinoise –the second album in a series of tributes to each state (the first was his native Michigan). For dramatic effect, Stevens and co. perform the Illinois set in uniforms similar to the outfits worn by Fighting Illini cheerleaders. The irony of this sight in Carrboro surely won’t be lost on local basketball fans.
Stevens’ background is filled with anomalies, but his clarity regarding his musical work is hard to dismiss. He was raised in an egalitarian family in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan; his parents have been reported as constantly searching for new life lessons: New Age crystals, hippy idealism, Sufism. His first name, an Armenian term, translates to “comes with a sword.” The music communicates a more introspective tone, whispering narrative tales full of questions and celebrations in delicately orchestrated cacophony. The songs in Illinoise are more than mere historical references or cold-eyed observations of curios.
The vivid visual traits of his lyrics, even their playful, overly-long titles, point to his literary training in the writing program at the New School University in New York. (A mid-size title is “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze”). Choral singing and cooing drift over toots and flourishes of horns, piano, church organ, even glockenspiel, reflecting Stevens’s Protestant faith, which he has described as the most important thing in his life. His higher afflatus gives the music an air of sober reality usually reserved for spiritual music. The next installments of his by-state project are expected to be Oregon, Rhode Island and New Jersey, respectively, but there is no news of a North Carolina edition. He may also go chameleonic as his style changes, but his interest in folk music remains. Stevens is set to appear on a new tribute record to Tim and Jeff Buckley, Dream Brother, the title of which sounds like a subtle command the curious figure Stevens himself might implore.
Sufjan Stevens, with opener Half Handed Cloud, plays at the Cat’s Cradle Sunday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. The performance is sold out.