The Sufjan Experience

How do you feel about the apocalypse? What if it were heralded by dancers in nineteen-nineties, neon Nike shirts?

Well, I’ve seen it, and it was awesome.

On Tuesday Nov. 2, Sufjan Stevens came to Denver, Colorado.  Two full drum kits, a 3-piece horn section, two piano players, a DJ, synthesizers, back-up dancers, guitars, bass and lots of costumes accompanied him. On a screen behind the stage huge videos of trippy visual effects flickered in time to the music. The entire spectacle was… well, a spectacle! Walking out of the theatre after the show, I was fully convinced that Sufjan is a genius (and perhaps mentally unstable).

Liz and I talked about it later, and here are few of my thoughts:

The Proximity of Genius and Insanity

Okay, maybe insanity is too strong a word. But could it be coincidence that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh and Beethoven are all thought to have suffered from various mental disorders, depression or substance abuses? Some of my favorite living musical and visual artists are bi-polar. In his song Vesuvius, Sufjan talks about giving in to something bigger than himself. I think most artists, in the act of creating, feel like they are giving themselves to the process. And that can be scary, as if you are losing yourself.

Getting Lost in Your Art

“Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” Madeleine L’Engle.

To write his newest album, Sufjan explained to the audience, he gave up all previous notions of what a song is and how to write one. He blocked all history and culture, as well as he could, from his process. Literally recording raw noises, he started to build the album by running his recordings through effect pedals and arranging them on the computer. He let himself get completely lost in the creative process, ignoring all outside influence.

His music teeters on the edge of losing control. The lyrics are simple, cryptic and rushing up from some deep part of his adolescent id.

Sufjan seems to have been wrestling with a dark angel. In between songs he opened his soul and poured out disjointed thoughts about the universe being in all of us. What a difference from the poetic depths of his album Seven Swans! The bright angel of creativity is still there however; and Sufjan began and ended his concert with some of the most meaningful and literary songs of his career.

Inspiration and Innovation

Any innovation in any discipline involves a re-evaluation of methods and ideologies. Picasso was a classically trained painter, but he intentionally questioned the classical methodology of color, shape and perspective. In letting go, he was able to innovate. It is appallingly easy to get “in a rut,” creating the same sorts of things over and over. Often it helps to get “outside” of one’s self and test your limits.

Primarily, I gain inspiration through other artist’s work. I intake a LOT of creative work, even stuff that is totally unrelated to my own disciplines. And I am most inspired when I can dialogue with an artist and get inside their head. That being the case, I create better art when I am in community.


One of the best ways to make sure you come back to reality is a strong community. I’m talking about people you love and trust, who are not afraid to be honest with you, to call you out when you’re being self-absorbed, and your art makes no sense at all.  We need each other, we need people from different backgrounds, trades and walks of life, and most of all, people that care about us.

This is just speculation, but I think that Sufjan Stevens, in his search for creativity, inspiration and innovation has left behind his community and lost those valuable voices of truth in his life.

Let us hope in his continued search he finds community, re-discovers the foundations of his rich literary training and the very source of creativity, Jesus Christ, who created the heavens and earth.

We’re rooting for you Sufjan!


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