AMERICA: ALBUM REVIEW
Much of Sufjan’s career has been an ode to the simple beauty of the Midwest and America as a whole. His breakthrough album Illinoise perfectly encapsulated the magic of the state and demonstrated the incredible power that indie and folk music have to highlight the overlooked parts of our country. Many early Sufjan albums acted as love letters to America, they were certainly critical when they needed to be, but for the most part, they showed an undying love for the country. On Sufjan’s newest EP, America, he takes a hard look at the version of America that he loves and recognizes its failures.
This week was filled with great and impactful EPs which is rare in a time where the EP has all but faded into a relic of the past. Galcher Lustwerk dropped a fantastic house EP, Summer Walker dropped her Life on Earth EP and Robert Glasper teamed up with Kamasi Washington, 9th Wonder, and Terrance Martin to give us the Dinner Party EP. Even in this crowded landscape, Sufjan’s America manages to separate itself. It feels both finite and huge at the same time. On America, Sufjan manages to make a political statement without getting bogged down in the details of what that statement means. While for some artists this could feel empty, for Sufjan it feels incredibly honest.
Sufjan Stevens is one of the most prominent and impactful indie artists of this century. His beautiful and almost whispery voice has become one of the most recognizable voices in indie music and his idiosyncratic rhythms have helped him define his own niche within the landscape. The America EP is his first solo offering since 2015s Carrie and Lowell and precedes his album The Ascension that he plans to release later this year.
The America EP has two songs “America” and “My Rajneesh.” The songs take two very different tones but are both rooted in a feeling of longing and sadness. “America” is a 12-minute long ode to the continual fall of the country. The song bounces between genres, at times sounding folky and upbeat before sinking into ambient passages driven by strings where the drums drop out and are replaced entirely with soundscapes. “My Rajneesh” takes on a much more typical form for a Sufjan song and sounds like a pretty typical folk ballad until the end when a vocoder and possibly some autotune work themselves into the mix.
While it is clear that “America” is saying something, it’s hard to tell exactly who Sufjan is speaking to. This song was written during the Carrie and Lowell sessions in 2015, before so much more of the country had gone to hell, but that makes its impact even more potent. On the hook of the song “America,” Sufjan yells, “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” It seems like he is speaking to God, to those in power, and to his loved ones all at the same time. Underneath all of this is Sufjan’s clear discomfort at what America has become or is in the process of becoming. Sufjan sings “I have traded my life for a picture of the scenery.” Admitting that his view of America and its opportunity has been colored by his own blindness to certain aspects of society.
“My Rajneesh” acts as a sort of atonement and prayer after admitting to the wrongs of America. The song is dedicated to the leader of a group in Oregon responsible for the largest bioterrorism attack in US history. Sufjan shows the level of devotion and belief that it would take to follow such a leader. He shows how someone’s mind can be warped when they believe in something enough to hurt others.
These two thoughtful and reflective tracks, when paired together, show the complexity of America today. They show the hypocrisy and drawbacks of patriotism. They both make me incredibly excited about Sufjan’s album later this year. With America, he showcased his constant willingness to evolve and become an artist who is willing to look critically at the ideas he explored in his early work. Sufjan has moved from self-reflection to an almost global reflection and that evolution is both beautiful and powerful.