To call Sufjan Stevens prolific would be an understatement. The indie-folk songwriter has traversed boundaries both within and beyond the “indie” and “folk” labels. Throughout his seven solo albums, Stevens has toyed with banjos and synthesizers alike, and that’s not even including his ambitious collaborative projects with artists such as The National’s Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister, or Asthmatic Kitty’s co-founder (and his own stepfather) Lowell Brams. That’s not even including his Christmas albums (plural) or his fictitious 50-states project (singular). With another LP, The Ascension, releasing later this month, I thought I’d dive into the polymath’s discography and rank each of his solo studio albums. Let me clarify here that I’m not counting collaborative projects or Christmas albums. Anyway, here is my ranking of Sufjan Stevens’ albums from A Sun Came to Carrie & Lowell.
Sufjan Stevens’ debut, A Sun Came, is far from an actively bad album. Most of Stevens’ solo records are excellent, but A Sun Came falls a bit short of greatness. Although he had already established his idiosyncratic style, the songs here just aren’t as memorable as something like “Death with Dignity,” “Chicago,” or “Futile Devices,” to name a few tracks. But he still comes equipped with a banjo, acoustic arrangements, and his soft, faint vocals. Opener “We Are What You Say” encapsulates all of this, and A Sun Came as a whole serves as a foundation for Stevens’ development as a songwriter. It’s not a bad record, but it doesn’t quite compare to what he would create next.
If you thought The Age of Adz was glitchy, then Stevens’ most electronic album to date, Enjoy Your Rabbit, is unadulterated chaos. This mostly instrumental LP is experimental by nature, as each song is dedicated to a different animal on the Chinese zodiac calendar, with the exception of a handful. Throughout its nearly 80-minute runtime, Stevens crafts textures both smooth and gritty, often bringing about peaceful ambience only to jarringly wrench you out of it with mechanical noise. “Year of the Rat” is a thesis statement of sorts, drawing from both calm and calamity across eight minutes.
It feels like a crime placing Seven Swans this low, but it speaks to how Stevens’ catalogue is brimming with authentic gems. This album may only be at the no. 5 spot, but Seven Swans contains some of the songwriter’s best work. I usually think of this record as a precursor to Carrie & Lowell on a musical level. Stevens seldom raises his voice above a whisper, and he’s accompanied by only the sparsest of instruments, such as his signature banjo, piano, and acoustic guitar. Similar to Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’ words ring through with every stanza, and the songwriting takes center stage. Although this album is wonderful throughout, it shines brightest with the first four tracks, especially “To Be Alone with You.”
Sufjan Stevens famously promised to write an album devoted to each of the 50 states in the U.S. He subsequently admitted it was “such a joke,” but at least we got two of those states, the first of which centers on his home state of Michigan. I’m doubtful that many of his fans enjoy Michigan more than Seven Swans, but it turns out that I’m one of them. Comparable to how I think of Seven Swans as a precursor to Carrie & Lowell, I consider Michigan a precursor to Illinois. Just as “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” adheres to a jubilant, 5/4 groove, “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up!” does, too. Just as nearly all of the songs’ titles are astonishingly lengthy, so are the ones on Illinois. Throughout its 15 tracks, Stevens explores the concept of writing an album that revolves around a state. With two albums as proof, he excels at this, and it would be interesting to see him have another shot at it sometime in the future.
Earlier, I mentioned that I don’t think many people would put Michigan over Seven Swans. On top of that, I’m not sure if many people would put The Age of Adz over both of those records, but here we are. The Age of Adz is another electronic endeavor from the usual banjo-player, but rather than stick with the noisy experimentalism of Enjoy Your Rabbit, Stevens interweaves the (more) conventional songwriting from records like Seven Swans and Illinois. Though he uses this opportunity to delve into modular synthesis and other forms of electronic manipulation (just listen to the 25-minute closer, “Impossible Soul”), opener “Futile Devices” starts things off softly. Backed by subdued, finger-picked acoustic guitar, he sings some of my favorite lyrics of his to date: “words are futile devices.”
Following the hushed rumination of Seven Swans, Stevens returns with a near-excess of bells and whistles. With 22 tracks and multi-clause song titles, Illinois is indisputably his most ambitious work yet. At times, Illinois feels utterly, holistically absurd, but that’s a vital reason why Illinois succeeds. “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” jaunts in a 5/4 time signature over vocal harmonies and glockenspiel over two disparate movements. “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” mixes woodwinds, horns, and mallet percussion in an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque fashion. Most of Illinois leans toward this style, but Stevens also has his quieter moments, and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is the paragon. This song, particularly when Stevens trails off in harmony with himself, will never fail to absolutely wreck me.
Remember when I said that Stevens’ vocals on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” never fail to wreck me? Well, that’s what all 43 minutes of Stevens’ latest record, Carrie & Lowell, inevitably do. “Death with Dignity” opens the album with finger-picked guitar, which sounds more like a harp than a guitar, and Stevens’ double-tracked vocals as he sings of his distant relationship with his deceased mother, the record’s central theme (“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end”). On “Fourth of July,” he broods over death itself, backed by pulsing, muted piano chords (“We’re all gonna die”). “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “The Only Thing” are other standouts, and it would feel shameful to not mention them here. Carrie & Lowell may be his simplest album, but it’s also his most personal and profound.