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The Soft Revolution

Today's folk songs are being sung--very quietly--by a generation that's had it with sex and drugs and doing it in the road

August 28, 2005|Alec Hanley Bemis | Alec Hanley Bemis writes the "Psychic Hipster's Pop 10" column for the L.A. Weekly, and after finishing this story he took a job with Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve. He also co-owns a record label, Brassland, which documents a community of musicians centered in Brooklyn and New York City.

New York City's Webster Hall was filled to capacity for the Plug awards, a celebration of the independent music community and its latest critical darlings. The performers booked for the evening were a diverse representation of the independent scene--so diverse, in fact, that you'd have been hard-pressed to explain the music they made to anyone who'd checked out during pop music's two-decade evolution into a million subdivisions and subgenres. They included turntablist Rjd2, the thrash metal band Dillinger Escape Plan, underground rapper Aesop Rock, strident spoken-word artist Saul Williams, and the modish pop-punk group Ted Leo & the Pharmacists.

It had taken a leap of imagination by the organizers to envision the audiences for these artists being brought together in one venue. But the artists did have one thing in common: noise. The performances were theatrical, aggressive, demanding of attention. Which has long been the stereotype of the music of youth, and indeed the entire culture of youth. The kids have short. Attention. Spans. They-want-quick-cut-edits. They like their entertainment loud fast out-oF-cOnTRol!

There's a problem with this theory.

Although the average age of the audience at the Plug awards was probably 25, the evening's most eagerly anticipated performer was a folk singer named Sufjan Stevens. Added to the bill at the last minute, he sang two songs, and offered a break from all the noise. His style was in keeping with the thrift-store chic of underground pop--mussed brown hair, blue jeans, a sleeveless winter vest. His affect, though, couldn't have been more different. Where the other artists leaped and lunged in an attempt to pump up the audience, Stevens was beatific. Lit by a crepuscular spotlight, he played an acoustic guitar and was accompanied by a single backup singer, who stood to one side with her arms crossed modestly behind her back. They performed before a projection of a rolling blue sky filled with puffy white clouds.

The first song was "Casimir Pulaski Day." Nominally about a minor holiday for a Polish-born Revolutionary War general, it's actually about a young man lingering over the hospital bed of his beloved, a woman afflicted with osteosarcoma, cancer of the bone. The title simply pinpoints the day on which the song's most critical events unfold. At first it was difficult to make out the lyrics over the chatter of the crowd--doubly so because Stevens delivered them in a kind of whispered, melodic narration.

All the glory that the Lord has made

And the complications you could do without

When I kissed you on the mouth

Those who could make out the words were confused--first by the earnest shout-out to a higher power, then by its juxtaposition with a kiss, and finally by the twist that followed.

Tuesday night at the Bible study

We lift our hands and pray over your body

But nothing ever happens

This wasn't just a song being sung, but a story being told, full of specific, writerly details. Early on the narrator brings the girl a gift of a flowerlike herb called goldenrod, placing the season as late summer. By early spring, she succumbs to the cancer that's invaded her bones, and on the day she dies, a cardinal crashes into her hospital window.

It was a song marked by faith and doubt. It was quiet and reverent. It would be an understatement to call the setting and tone atypical of indie rock. (Scruffy musicians don't often brag about attending Bible study.) What was most interesting, however, was Stevens' take on religion, and how atypical it seemed in these religiously righteous times.

His set could be heard as a series of stark questions for the unquestioning: What if a few more Christian voices had declared that Terri Schiavo's deathbed struggle was not something to be politicized? What if the Catholic Church were to acknowledge that romantic love and faith are not mutually exclusive? What if those who believe in God felt free to wonder what he hath wrought?

What if American culture were afflicted with an insidious cancer in its very bones, and a hundred prayers couldn't fix it?

Sufjan Stevens is one of underground music's oddest recent success stories--a self-avowed Christian in a scene that is irreligious to its core; a singer-songwriter who graduated from the New School's MFA fiction workshop; a performer with more affinity for Paul Simon's dulcet tones and contemporary classical music's sonic wallpaper than Bob Dylan's incisive wit and punk's snarling attitude. In an interview a few weeks after his performance at the Plug awards, near his home in Brooklyn's Ditmas Park neighborhood, he is an even more striking figure. Close up you can see his clear hazel eyes and the Madonna-esque gap between his two front teeth; you can feel the energy he emits, at once confident and reserved, solicitous and bristling.

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