I always knew that Steve Martin was a prophet when I would listen to that scratched ‘Let’s Get Small’ album. In this case I am thinking of his prophetic utterance in his stand-up routine entitled “Grandmother’s Song” where he states – “you can’t sing anything sad on a banjo.”
There is something in the American ethos when a banjo kicks in that evokes either gothic dread (think “Dueling Banjos” in ‘Deliverance’) or some untouched innocence that speaks of a by-gone state of grace (One imagines Rousseau’s noble savage pickin’ and a-grin’ and you get the picture…) Banjos continue to make their way into pop music even beyond the usual alt.country trend to see banjos as the natural grandparent to a Flying V guitar. One notable example found on the CD/DVD edition of U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and the version of “Vertigo” (Temple Bar Mix) that has Edge playing solo banjo. In short – banjos are just cool and the latest indie wunderkind to embrace the banjo is Sufjan Stevens on his album “Illinoise” (also called, in a nice touch of cheek nod to Quiet Riot, “Come on, feel the Illinoise” :-).
Sufjan is certainly the “what? you haven’t heard HIM yet?” artist of the moment in indie circles and on the blogsphere (aka – he is a KEXP.org darling). Being a so-called ‘literate listener’ deems such artists (and awareness there of) arise from time to time – so consider yourself served notice prior to the emails that will come your way from friends streaming WiFi over steaming lattes at 3am in the [fill in name of boheme cafe in your locale]. His epic attempt to record albums based on all 50 states (he has recorded “Michigan”prior to “Illinoise”) makes for good PR and a nice quirky hook for rock journalists (“will ‘Delaware’ be an EP?” “is there ANY music to describe “South Dakota” and if so, why bother?!”)
However, the fact remains… he is just really good.
The Seattle Weekly recently described “Illinoise” “Like a kid’s 50-state book, TBS’s Portrait of America specials from the ’80s, or Rick Smolan’s 24/7 coffee-table book series, [Sufjan Stevens’] Illinoise is a grand, corny gesture toward painting the essence of a state with the broadest of strokes. Stevens respects both the megaopolis of Chicago and the wee village of Birds, ponders the Columbian Exposition of 1893, gets a visit from Carl Sandburg in a dream, and remembers Satchmo and Gacy and Douglas and Lincoln and Lincoln’s wife. The references to stuff like the Chickenmobile and Octave Chanute might even leave Illinoisans feeling like strangers to their own state. “
While the subjects of Sufjan’s consideration – particularly on Michigan and Illinoise – are ostensibly secular, the face of the Divine is truly alit and seeking our attention through the ‘bars of his rhyme’ (name the song riff paraphrase there and win a guest blog on FMD). To listen to ‘Sufjan minialism’ is the face our hopes and fears without clutter…and the fact that we are certainly not alone. It is hard to imagine someone as deeply devout as Sufjan Stevens dwelling on man and his works for very long without seeing God’s presence in them. God is there as Stevens sings of the young friend he prays for as she dies from cancer, of the runners on the underground railroad who’ve “got a better life coming,” of humble Decatur as “The Great I Am.” He is there as several songs blur together the patriotic declarations of a state song and merge into Blakean vision: “Peoria! Destroyia! Infinity! Divinity!”
“Casimir Pulaski Day” off of “Illinoise” is an example of Sufjan’s wrestling with the tension of belief coupled with doubt and discouragement – “Tuesday night at the bible study/ We lift our hands and pray over your body/ But nothing ever happens.” The struggles of being in Bible study and after Bible study and hoping upon hope that God will heal and “nothing ever happens” is certainly part of the bumpy topography of every Christian sojourner’s map of life. Rather than reconcile this issue through reasoned pronoucements or blithe appeal to dogma, Sufjan lets the paradox possible in music exist as is. Amidst the strain of the faithful praying in honest unison – the voice of the banjo plunks away in the background. Rather than sound like a bad parody of ‘Hee Haw’, Sufjan counterpoints the plunking banjo voice of the humans in prayer with brass – trumpets and trombone akin to a Salvation Army band giving hope to dampened urban dwellers rushing from one street corner to the next on Christmas Eve. For Sufjan, two of the most unlikely instruments – the mundane banjo and the angelic instrument of choice – the trumpet – exalt each other and draw in the voices of the gathered into worship ala the Polyphonic Spree:
“Oh the glory that the Lord has made/ And the complications when I see His face/ In the morning in the window/ Oh the glory when he took our place /But He took my shoulders and He shook my face/ And He takes and He takes and He takes “
No matter how mundane life may seem to be, Stevens sees the story of life as a love story between himself and Jesus, God born human, a man stung and mocked and wrestled with. We may see ourselves as the members of a state or a country. There may be a kind of equality in a state of sin. But we are brought to an even greater unity when we love Jesus, who brings us into the highest relationship with God.
Oh yeah… and banjo never sounded so good. That ‘wild and crazy guy’ did have a point – you really can’t sing anything bad on a banjo.