SUFJAN STEVENS is at that point. The point where, as an artist, he can seemingly do anything. Go anywhere. The point where, as a listener, one is constantly startled and amazed by just how talented Stevens is. But that point is also a break. A crossroads. Dylan or Donovan? Laureate or sham?
Because since Greetings from Michigan was released in July of 2003, the attention lavished upon Stevens, the circus-like concern whether or not Stevens would even make it to Florida or Wyoming—let alone ever finish his purported all-50-states recording project—reached a nauseous peak some time ago. In fact, it's gotten to the point that before one interviews Stevens, two "don't ask" questions are laid out: Don't ask about the 50 states thing. And don't ask about religion.
The 31-year-old, Detroit native has carte blanche. He runs his own label (Asthmatic Kitty). He has the artistic freedom—in an a musical era where even the idea of a Basement Tapes would sadly seem foreign to most—to release The Avalanche, a 21-song collection of outtakes from Illinois, and Songs for Christmas, a five-EP, elaborately packaged box set of winter holiday-themed originals and covers in the same calendar year. (For those counting, that makes three LPs and five EPs in three and a half years. Ryan Adams ain't got nothin' on Sufjan.)
Moreover, two years ago, when Stevens hit Portland while on tour, he played Dante's for five dollars as part of a three-act bill that he didn't even headline. This time around, his show at the Crystal—in which he will be backed by a string quartet, horn section, and standard rock band setup—costs $25 (before service charges) and has been sold out for over a month. Times change. Fast.
So where does Stevens stand on all of this? Where's the truth and where's the fiction? Dylan or Donovan? How 'bout a little Neil Young.
"If I were to go after something, in terms of someone's career, his would be it," Stevens says. "He's changed so much. He's stayed active. He's never been complacent. I admire him."
Just as Young answered the blowup that followed Harvest with Time Fades Away, or Dylan cranked out Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde while the rest of the world was still trying to figure out why he plugged in, Stevens' answer to the hype has been the right one: Fight the good fight.
"You know, I think I just realized that I don't need to talk so much," he said. "Even for this tour, I decided it'd be better if I just gave a few select interviews. People will find them if they really want to. I just need to work on and play music and not worry about and deal with all of the other stuff."
Intelligent, soft-spoken, and seemingly at ease, it is as if the storm that has been built up around Stevens has yet to even reach his front door. The crossroads don't exist. "I really haven't changed that much," he said. "If anything, I see it as an opportunity. I can promote my friends' bands on Asthmatic more. And for this tour, I've spent the last two months going through the songs, reworking them, and composing pieces for the string section. I'm trying to do something different and special, so hopefully it'll work out."