What makes you like an album? I kept asking myself this while listening to Sufjan Stevens. Is it the instruments? the notes? the singing? the lyrics? a combination of all of them? But that isn't all that music is composed of; those are just the bricks and mortar. What is it about music that speaks to me through these things? One thing, at least, is music that could be a soundtrack to my life. Good music encapsulates memorable moments as perfectly as a picture; sometimes, you can even smell the way that moment smelled.
It takes a good storyteller to make the story come to life, though. Especially when the music is as mellow as Sufjan Stevens', this can be quite a challenge. But he manages quite well. The most vivid image for me came from "In The Devil's Territory," a soft song with a hauntingly urgent melody. The opening is a plucked out on some instrument I couldn't identify, and then joined by a piano playing similar notes. I was transported back to the day that I visited New York City for the first time. Rounding the curve in New Jersey, I had a good view of New Jersey's industrial wastelands and the Big Apple across the water. It was dark, and the Empire State Building was colorfully lit. Here was a city that I had heard so much about, that had been featured in so many movies and was strongly shrouded in myth in my mind. Yet when my friend asked me if I was excited, I shrugged. It was just a city, after all. Besides, emotions don't always have to be expressed; sometimes they deserve to be held and treasured privately. This song is the perfect reminder of my heart beating quick while my face remained stoic.
A lot of Sufjan Stevens' songs are like this, quiet little odes to quiet little emotions. It's easy to get caught up in our melodramatic society, but Stevens doesn't. He gives the quiet emotions their due. Sometimes, as in "He Woke Me Up Again," the lyrics seem almost idiotically simplistic at first, but layers of meaning are added progressively and unhurriedly until, at the end of the song, you realize what he's really trying to say. It's almost like understanding the punchline 5 minutes after someone tells you a joke, only you don't feel as humiliated because Stevens is still singing when the meaning becomes clear.
Even seemingly unimportant moments are made full and wonderful with Stevens' careful handling. "The Dress Looks Nice On You" says "I can see a lot of life in you/ I can see a lot of bright in you/ And I think the dress looks nice on you./ I can see a lot of life in you." In my mind, a girl is trying on a dress while her boyfriend waits patiently. She's not sure if she likes it, so she asks him what he thinks. After a thought, he says he likes it, but she doesn't believe him. Turning to the mirror to examine the dress again, she doesn't see the truth in his eyes that her vivacity is what makes him think she's beautiful in the first place. It's a tiny moment, one that they may both forget, but idyllic in Stevens' world.
It's details like this that make us like or dislike an album. We are more inclined to love a person when we see traits of our own personality in them; we are more likely to appreciate art that is in a more realistic form. You can ask why about that all you want, but I'm going to be listening to Sufjan Stevens again to see what other moments he can bring to life for me. 7/10 -- Eden Hemming Rose (25 May, 2005)