Sufjan Stevens | Impossible Soul

6 Comments 21 | October | 2010

Considering his recent 180 on the grandiose undertaking of writing an album for each of the 50 states, it might have been alarming to hear Sufjan Stevens declare his new album would conclude with a 25-minute marathon track, boasting no less than six distinct “acts.”  And given the avant-ness of his mixed-media tribute to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, a song of this length leaves a lot of room to go awry.  But in the way that only he can, Sufjan blows the doors off this bitchNot that his Christian background would support that direct quotation, but I don’t want to let his understated persona undermine how truly fucking radical this piece is.  However, I may be underestimating Stevens considering lyrics from this track’s predecessor, “I Want to be Well,” find the devout songwriter insisting, “I’m not fucking around.”

Indeed, he is not.  Here’s the playbill.

Act I: (0:00 – 3:57)

Sufjan welcomes his audience with heavenly harps juxtaposed alongside wounded vocals, recounting an argument and the lover that left him “with a broken heart that you stabbed for an hour.”  Soon after, enter the horns and heavy drums to punctuate the mood.  Add a heavily distorted Nintendo guitar solo and we’ve reached the climax of his lovelorn plight.

Act II: (3:57 – 9:58)

Transferring vocal control to a female counterpart, perhaps the lover of his impossible soul, the soundscape takes on a distinctly robotic theme, blipping and beeping as if transplanted from Beck’s Midnight Vultures.  Despite the lyrics beckoning, “Don’t be distracted,” the busy backdrop pulls the listener in countless directions, building to a frantic tidal wave and finally subsiding, leaving just enough air in the lungs for the next act.

Act III: (9:58 – 13:14)

The steady piano from Act I returns, grounding and comforting.  Then, in a moment that would make T-Pain shed a tear, Stevens unleashes a lethal dose of Auto-tune.  Ignoring the age-old advice, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” his garbled vocals swirl and fluctuate at all the wrong times, reintroducing a state of uneasiness.  Underscoring his adventure into new frontiers, thundering bass marches onto the scene, accompanied by moderate computerized mayhem.   Kanye gently weeps.

Act IV: (13:14 – 20:30)

The dull thud of the club bass combines with a group four-count launching this act into the inspirational stratosphere, where the impossible becomes possible.  The chorus repeats with versions of “It’s a long life, better pinch yourself, put your face together, better get it right” that are immediately followed by cheers of “Boy, we can do much more together.  Better get a life….It’s not so im-poss-i-ble!!”  A musical “yard sale,” innumerable sounds, both analog and digital, declare an auditory tickle war of yummy happy fun times, that would see even the grouchiest grouch leap from his trashcan and dance a jig.

Act V: (20:30 – 22:43)

The shortest act in the play, “V” is essentially “Act IV (Reprise),” repeating the mantra in a very robotic fashion.  “BOY. WE CAN DO MUCH MORE TOGETHER.”  Very 1984.  ***END TRANSMISSION***

Act VI: (22:43 – 25:35)

Sufjan finishes the masterpiece by finger picking his way back in familiar territory.  The final chapter registers as distinctly human compared to the apocalyptic episodes that come before.  No longer “wigged out” and caught up in the moment, an apologetic Stevens confesses his selfishness, admitting, “Boy, we made such a mess together.”  It’s unclear whether his appeals are heard, but it’s soothing nonetheless.

Traversing a musical journey of this magnitude is a real commitment and it’s hard to convince a listener that it’s worth the time without heaving him into it without warning.  Now that I have ruined the surprise I figure it’s my job to present an argument that persuades you to spare nearly 30 minutes of your busy schedule.

But this isn’t new for me.  Having previously dubbed Pinback’s “Grey Machine” the best 11:08 minutes of music of 2003, I’m not going to shy away from granting Stevens’ “Impossible Soul” similar rank.  It is all I can do to not include it on a mix and subject all of LDD’s followers to its brilliance, but I thought it better, and instead make the appeal for you to listen to it here and now (due to the length of the program, it is presented in two parts!).  Don’t believe me, believe the stats.

Number of Times I’ve listened to the full track:  17 (since acquiring it on October 1st)

Total Time spent listening/analyzing/oohing/aahhing:  435 minutes (7 h 15 m)

That’s approximately one full working day!!

Alright, enough jibba-jabba, get to listening.

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