Singer Sufjan Stevens seeks refuge in feel-good vibes

Sufjan Stevens is a multi-instrumentalist and singer based in New York.
Sufjan Stevens is a multi-instrumentalist and singer based in New York. PHOTO: ASTHMATIC KITTY

A legendary monster residing deep in a lake - that is how Sufjan Stevens compares his late mother's battle with depression and, later, stomach cancer.

In the opening track Wallowa Lake Monster, one of four previously unreleased songs from his new album, the musician channels grief through a childlike vision of a cryptid which has taken her. It is comforting and tremendously sad at the same time.

"We waited for the waters to reside/Her remarkable stoicism and her pride/When the dragon submerged we knew she had died," he whispers the closing tercet, the half-rhyme in "died" striking a terse finality.

This song is a highlight in a companion anthology to his 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, an elegiac examination of his relationship with his parents and stepfather, as well as his mother's eventual demise.

Billed as a mixtape, the latest collection is a refraction of the latter, giving a glimpse into the musician's mind as he grips with something unknowable and uncontrollable.

The iPhone demos put the focus on Stevens' voice and the strength and fragility of his emotions. The originals showcase the Midwestern resilience and bonhomie at the core of his art. He reminisces about his growing-up years in Oregon in the song The Hidden River Of My Life, and comes to terms with his shortcomings in City Of Roses. "It's a little-known fact that I can't cope/I'm the champion of repression," he sings over a banjo, uplifting and conflicted.

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The remixes also capture the curious ambiguity - they sound transcendent, promising salvation, but the redemption is sometimes elusive. They take the form of dance-club revelry fuelled by escalating synths and sonic depths.

It is akin to taking refuge in a discotheque and desperately drowning yourself in the feel-good vibes, but feeling lonelier instead.

The gap between external sanity and inner turmoil is gleaned. Stevens' take on Drawn To The Blood riffs on the refrain "How, how did this happen?/What did I do to deserve this?" as it rides on softly lubricated beats.

Ecuadorian-American producer Helado Negro lends his trademark dreamlike touch to two gems. Death With Dignity is elevated to an ecclesiastical wonder, the singer's voice double-tracked, echoing through time. All Of Me Wants All Of You is slowed down to a dirge-like pace as he adds spaced-out percussion.

American pianist/producer Doveman takes Exploding Whale, originally released as a seven-inch on the Carrie & Lowell tour, and transforms it into sonic emollient for a bruised soul. Note the intimate details: burping beats and a barely discernible sonar. "The thing I most regret/Is having to repress what I'm feeling/While expressing delight as a myth/Embrace the epic fail/Of my exploding whale," Stevens sings, even-toned, belying inchoate pain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2017, with the headline 'Seeking refuge in feel-good vibes'. Print Edition | Subscribe