Sufjan Stevens makes brave and challenging music. 'America' is no exception. No easy listen: it's one for you to decipher yourself. For me it is not dissimilar in intent to Dylan’s recent ‘Murder Most Foul’. Another sprawling montage: another bold auteur in despair at America’s political and cultural decline. This is less specific, more notional than Dylan’s ribald diatribe. It is similarly ambitious and no less lofty. Clocking in at 12 minutes plus you might wonder at the wonder boy’s focus but, after a few listens, the penny drops. I reckon that, after the personal angst that informed his last album, 2017s ‘Carrie and Lowell’, he is now addressing his nation’s mass misery. That is too broad a subject to go into here. Suffice to say that, after the initial hushed hymnal reverence, the beauty and discord that informs the final third of this prolonged piece surely exemplifies the dissonance and distress that I know most of my American friends feel at the disintegration of their country. Their horror and embarrassment often renders them muted. You can’t speak for others, let alone a nation, but Sufjan does his best: “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” he confesses. “Don’t do to me what you did to America.”Given the impressionistic vibe what are the abiding impressions? Image is everything but meaning is lost: ‘truth’ rendered spectral. The colour’s turned up but the sound is turned down: we risk becoming detached, disinterested, deafened: immune to the contradictions and deceit that currently colour the ‘everyday’. The message will remain unclear but the revolution will, most certainly, be televised.
In the spirit of the folk singer, Stevens once set out to release an album as a signifier for each State of his nation. He gave up after two ('Illinois' and 'Michigan'), daunted at the prospect. Ironic then that he has released a single to detail the state of his nation. It seems as much informed by uncertainty as certainty. Ain’t that a sign of the times? And the times they are a changing.