Review Summary: Chaotic Evil.
Sufjan Stevens might be the finest indie artist of the 21st century. I don’t think any modern rock musician could have pulled off his uncommonly expansive discography – which includes a pensive indie masterpiece, an exercise in wide-eyed religious storytelling, two musically dense tributes to U.S. states, two multi-volume Christmas albums, and a foray into frenetic electronica – with anywhere near the precision and excellence of Stevens. He has proven his mettle time and time again as, perhaps, the most ambitious man in modern music.
Stevens’ reputation as the mad, soft-spoken genius of indie rock is firmly cemented to the point where it seems practically inconceivable that he could do any wrong. I think that may be why his debut album, “A Sun Came” seems so mind-boggling in hindsight.
Let me make it clear that I have no motivation to craft any sort of hit-piece against Stevens by drudging up something from way in the past. I absolutely adore and admire his music, and am confident that his work over the last 15 years has bought him more than enough goodwill for us to forgive the fact that “A Sun Came” is an absolutely dreadful album. No, I am bringing this up because I am completely taken with the fact that this album exists in the first place.
In true Sufjan fashion, “A Sun Came” is the best kind of terrible that there is. In fact, it’s the type of terrible album that I’m convinced only Sufjan Stevens is capable of producing. Standing at a full 21 songs (in the case of the reissue) and nearly 80 minutes, the album is rich with so much head-scratching material that it’s impossible to know exactly where to begin.
In all fairness, the first two minutes or so of the album’s leadoff track “We Are What You Say” is one of the best passages of the album. The strange Celtic flutes and stomping melody are decent enough, but the song quickly goes off the rails and devolves into absolute chaos, with the flutes becoming whiny and agonizing. The second track, “A Winner Needs a Wand” is quite similar, starting off fine and collapsing into a mish-mash of directionless whistling. And it’s not like these digressions are necessary either, as both of these songs could easily conclude after three minutes, but are inexplicably stretched to nearly six. I understand that Sufjan’s early sensibilities were influenced by his days as a part of Marzuki, but the dashes of exotic music do less to enhance the tracks than they do to envelop them. It’s a bit like painting a porcelain figurine by just dumping an entire can of paint on it and calling it day.
Sufjan’s frequent sojourns to flute hell are a constant source of agony on “A Sun Came”, even on tracks like “Dumb I Sound” which are otherwise good. But the truly fascinating parts of the album are the ones that are practically amusical altogether. Interspersed throughout the album are these bizarre soundbites that apparently come from the homemade radio show made by Sufjan and his brothers when they were children. A wide variety of enlightening stories are recorded here, like “One time, this kid ate too much food, and the food started coming out of his stomach…out of his belly button. There was maggots coming out of his belly button.” It’s some NPR-worthy stuff. Meanwhile, the introduction “Rice Pudding” is nothing but an off-kilter drum beat and some aimless guitar noodling haphazardly centered around a repetitive bassline. And, of course, there’s the original release’s closer, “Satan’s Saxophones”: three minutes of absolutely mind-numbing, cacophonous ear-rape that I can barely even describe. It is a candidate for the single worst piece of music that I have ever heard, right alongside Neutral Milk Hotel’s 13-minute colossus “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye”.
Squint hard enough and these pieces of music could be considered “postmodern” or “experimental” – hell, Pitchfork of all places called “Satan’s Saxophones” “an unwitting musical satire of free jazz.” But regardless of their intent, which is still unclear in the first place, their merits as standalone pieces of music are completely nonexistent. The only one of these songs that works on any level is “SuperSexyWoman”, a bizarre and kind of hilarious tribute to Sufjan’s dream girl, who, for those unaware, will “shoot a super fart, the deadly silent kind.” Cool.
Between all of this madness are some genuine attempts at serious music. Many of them, while not abhorrent, fail to leave much of an impact. The best of the bunch are the aforementioned “Dumb I Sound”, which nurses a twinkling piano melody and some moving vocals before inevitably being eaten by flutes and dragged out to six minutes in length, and the acoustic sleeper “Kill”, which seems somewhere in the ballpark of Stevens’ modern music in terms of style. Those songs are still obviously below par compared to the dense, complex masterpieces Sufjan is churning out these days. But at this point, anything remotely enjoyable sounds like “Casimir Pulaski Day” to me. Most of the songs are either insufferably long, repetitive slogs like “The Oracle Said Wander” and “A Loverless Bed” or bogged down by their poor production values like “Rake” or “Demetrius”. “Ya Leil”, which comes toward the album’s end, is another experiment (this time with Middle Eastern music) that starts out slightly intriguing but goes on and on and on for five and a half minutes, arriving nowhere.
Like an oasis in the middle of the vast desert, the final song on the 2004 reissue of the album - the revamped version of “Rake” - seems like a mirage at first. Its production is similar to that of a "Seven Swans" song, with a lone banjo propelling Stevens and a host of background singers to a soaring conclusion. It’s the best song on “A Sun Came” by a country mile, and one of the best songs of Sufjan’s entire career. After the arduous trek through this desolate album, reaching “Rake – Greenpoint version” feels like a miracle.
Despite loving Sufjan’s other work, I’ll admit that I did not enter “A Sun Came” with the highest expectations. I expected it to be on par with the humble beginnings of other game-changing artists like Radiohead’s “Pablo Honey” or Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut. A lot of underwhelming debut albums can be chalked up to the artist still working out the kinks and developing their style, but the errors don’t seem to be of that same breed here. The album fails colossally in ways that I never thought were possible, especially when the writer would go on to display such talent just a few years later. Each decision, aside from a couple of glaring spikes in quality, seems more mind-boggling than the last. I suppose Stevens is lucky that he was a nobody at the point that this album was released because it never really got the critical panning in might have deserved and therefore never showed up as any sort of black mark on his legacy. He turned out to be one of the greats of our generation, but “A Sun Came” is still worth remembering just to put in perspective how far he has come since 2000. In my mind, it’s one of the most interestingly bad albums of all time.