There was a moment in the mid-2000’s that Sufjan Stevens truly seemed like he might become at least as great and influential as The Beatles themselves. He might have announced The Fifty States Project purely as a publicity stunt, but it was precisely the kind of impossible project we all need - a Musical Apollo Program. A way of summing up what this country is: its music, its history, its many moods, the condition of whatever the fuck it means to be an American.
No artist who ever wants to do anything but drive himself crazy should ever attempt anything on so impossibly high a level, but if you want to take your stab at immortality, you have to set your sights on the impossible, the eternal, the unachievable, and then achieve it. That kind of cosmic achievement is what makes great art possible - the kind of art that overthrows governments and brings us closer to World Peace (or World War) - and it’s only possible because of cosmic ambition. There is lots of music we all love that is wonderful and gorgeous and soul-warming, but it is music of a specific era and place, and will evaporate as soon as the environment that birthed it evaporates too. So much of the music you love will mean nothing to your children, and your grandchildren will never even have heard of the people who made it. Flowers are no less beautiful because they die so quickly, and in so many ways, their transitoriness makes them more beautiful. But when future generations listen to what we love, they’ll hear the same stench of Prune Juice and Ben-Gay and death that we hear if we ever come across our grandparents’ old 78s of artists like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.
But a few times in every generation, there are artists that transcend the popular venues out from which they come to create real, lasting, eternal art. Our grandparents’ generation had the great musicians of jazz. Our parents generation had the great singer-songwriters of rock. There was a point roughly ten years ago that the privileged among our generation might have thought that the Indie Rockers would have produced a similarly great output - beginning with the alternative Seattle scene, and then branching into Sufjan, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Jimmy Eat World (remember when people actually thought they were good?), White Stripes (yech), The Magnetic Fields, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle and Sebastian, The Decemberists (double yech), Blur, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Coldplay (ew), Yo La Tengo, Beck, Pavement, Wilco, The Strokes… But everybody should have known, Indie Rock is not its own movement, it’s merely an imitative coda to the much better music our parents grew up with. If there is eternally great music in our generation, it probably comes from another direction entirely.
When Sufjan came to play to a nearly sold-out Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in the grey but surprisingly warm evening of November 1st, it was as good a concert as you’re ever going to see in Baltimore: moving, cathartic, ecstatic, but it was a sad experience all the same. He seems to permanently have said goodbye to the exuberance present in so much of Greetings from Michigan, omnipresent in Illinoise, and fading away in Age of Adz. It made you wonder if he’s now making a permanent home in the death-haunted, wrist-slitting mode of Seven Swans. In classical music, there’s a famous critic who referred to a quality present in the great Austrian composer, Bruckner, which the critic called ‘Visionary Dreariness.’ And as one song about death and god merged into the next, I thought of this quality over and over again. On their own, so many of these songs would be moving, but together, they make for a thoroughly morbid experience. I doubt there was a person who left the theater without a feeling of being cathartically cleansed, but I also can’t imagine that our spirits would have felt even cleaner if there was a little more life amid all that death.
It’s utterly petty to complain like this. Even if it was boring at times, it was an incredibly moving, unspeakably profound experience. It was only boring in the way that great novels can sometimes be boring - you know that the boredom serves a purpose, like an arduous mountain you climb to get that incredible view from the peak. Furthermore, you can’t quite blame Sufjan. His mother just died, and in this new album of his, Carrie & Lowell, which I’m pretty sure he performed in its entirety and in sequence, is in large part his memorial to her.
There are plenty of rock albums, great ones, which deal with death in painstaking detail. Springsteen’s Nebraska is unmistakably an album about death, but not any one person’s death in particular, and perhaps not even the death of people so much as the death of places. Lots of people love Nebraska over all other albums from ‘The Boss’, because it shows that he can be as sober and reflective as he is exuberant. But for me, Springsteen without the exuberance is not quite Springsteen. Bruce gets away with being so earnest and uncynical because he gives so much rhythmic oomf that you can’t help but follow him wherever he goes, but when the pathos is on its own at a slow tempo without the Phil Spector-influenced wall of sound, his lack of cynicism can curdle into treacle. Better for me is Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, in which he mourned Crazy Horse’s guitarist, Danny Whitten. The grief is almost completely beneath the surface. Neil Young is a more moving songwriter than either Dylan or Springsteen, perhaps all the more so because the vocabulary he uses is so much plainer than either - death is present in every song on the album, but mentioned only obliquely. The irony present in it is both cutting and beautiful. No singer-songwriter in rock history, not even Joni Mitchell or Randy Newman, comes even close to writing the achingly beautiful harmonic progressions you get from Neil Young. Listen to the unspeakably beautiful harmonies of “Borrowed Tune” and try telling yourself that this is not exactly what grief sounds like.
My favorite, by a long shot, is a series of albums. It will always be Johnny Cash’s series of America Recordings, which seems to take us through an entire multi-year process of dying with dignity, anger, humor, and an ecstatic embrace of the entire life cycle. All it takes is a great singer near death and the right producer, and you can produce something as eloquent about death as a Mahler symphony.
And if Johnny Cash and Neil Young were not enough to put Sufjan’s achievements in perspective, there is always Mahler… If someone from classical music, that most visionarily dreary of all musical fields, can be entertaining in comparison, there’s a big problem.
Five days after Sufjan’s trip to the Meyerhoff, I was sitting in the back row of the Kennedy Center to hear Christoph Eschenbach conduct the National Symphony in Mahler’s Third Symphony. And, of course, I was riveted.
Mahler once said “A Symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.” Mahler’s Third Symphony, for me, is the greatest work ever written for an orchestra. It is the great, grand summation of the great line of classical music music from Bach and Handel through Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Richard Strauss. The very peaks and valleys of creation resound in that 100-minute monsterpiece. There is not a single human emotion missing - everything from the highest joy to the lowest agony, the highest awe to the lowest vulgarity, is here. The music is unspeakably profound, but it finds just as much space for the ugliest sounds, the tawdriest melodies, the cheapest musical jokes. “You don’t want to listen to anything important?” this music seems to say, “Don’t worry, here’s a dog-and-pony show.”
Like Sufjan in Carrie & Lowell, Mahler wrote his third symphony when he was in his late thirties. It would be nearly another ten years before Mahler’s music became quite as gloomy and death obsessed as Sufjan now is. ‘Late Mahler’, writing symphonies as quickly as possible because he knew his days were numbered, is every bit as great and grand as early Mahler, and throughout his career, Mahler was as obsessed by death as any artist has ever been.
But even at his most death-haunted, Mahler is as much an entertainer as an artist. He knows that the more entertained the audience is, the more receptive they are to digest a profound message. No matter how long or bombastic a Mahler symphony seems, there is always a surprise around the corner ready to hold our attention at lengths we never thought possible, because there is a comic side to Mahler which you almost never get from Sufjan except in the descriptions of his songs which Sufjan puts in his liner notes. In Sufjan’s two Fifty States albums, you can almost hear Sufjan trying to feel his way into something much less serious, but he never quite gets there. By ‘The Age of Adz’ in 2010, even the exuberant energy has turned into something dark, and he has ever since retreated from that attempt.
The further in his career he gets, the less Sufjan seems like the epic bard which the ‘Fifty States Project’ seemed to suggest. He is no Mahler or Bob Dylan. Mahler and Dylan (for all Dylan’s weaknesses), admirably chronicled their time and place. If you want a taste of what the mentality of living in mid-century America might have been like, or the Fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian Empire, you could do much much worse than listen to The Times They Are A-Changin’ or the last movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. There is greatness of course in being another fine lyric poet of narrow focus, but great lyric poems are so much more common than great epics. Great lyric poems are what we all need to get through our days and make our lives more meaningful, but great epics are what give us the inspiration to keep building a better world.
The musical Messiah for which America eagerly waits, that synthesizes all of our music into a rain of beauty, will probably never come. Or perhaps, like Mahler, perhaps he will only come at the moment of our society’s imminent demise and will only be appreciated properly when he’s been dead for fifty years.
So as that other alleged Messiah of our American era once said: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” We’re living in the crowd-sourced era, the era of movies and TV, the era of collaborative projects. If Sufjan won’t finish the Fifty States Project, let’s finish it for him. Just here in Baltimore, there are all sorts of musicians who could take up the challenge, whether for Baltimore or Maryland. You can’t tell me that Dan Deacon, for all the stupid shit on which he’s piddled his talent, doesn’t have an equivalent musical brilliance to Sufjan. When he gets serious, he creates musical cathedrals as fully realized as any musician working today in any genre. Or maybe some singer-songwriters can take up the challenge like Letitia Vansant or Ellen Cherry or Matt Beale - good songwriters all of them. It’s purely the luck of the draw that musicians like them are local while others no more talented are international.
The city of Baltimore teems with talented, and underachieving, musicians who can express exactly what it’s like for us all to be from Smalltimore, from Baltimore, from Maryland. In every artform of every genre, there are many artists who express nothing but what it’s like to be them. They belong to nobody but themselves - they infatuate the listener and rob from their audience’s souls without giving back any part of their own souls in return. That kind of artist, or that kind of person, has a defect of character, and I feel sorry for those people who want to be part of nothing but themselves. The best artists, the best art, belongs to us all.
There should be musicians and songwriters in every state and city and zipcode in America that should take up where Sufjan left off. Few of us may border on musical genius the way Sufjan does, but we can all write about what’s on the street corners in front of our noses. Or maybe the project has practically written itself already in individual songs by songwriters across America, and all it needs is a knowledgeable editor to put it together in a single long 72-hour playlist.
But in this era when Americans are yet again torn asunder by misunderstanding, it should be obvious that every American should have a ready-made way of learning about the essence, the spirit, the soul, of every place in America for which they’re not familiar. Perhaps when we can hear that spirit, we can better know how to talk to one another, and heal a country that is clearly as divided as any point in living memory.