OH GREAT INTENTIONS, /
I’VE GOT THE BEST OF INTERVENTIONS…
Though musically brilliant, perhaps the thing I love most about Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois is what it represents. Its unique position in Stevens’ grand project to write a concept album for each of America’s 50 states.
He embarked upon this mammoth undertaking relatively early in his career, having already found some acclaim in the indie/folk scene for his gentle and melancholy debut record A Sun Came, and having proven his experimental chops and ability to string together a concept album on follow-up album Enjoy Your Rabbit. Point proven, platform won. Something big was coming.
The states series began, fittingly, with Stevens’ birthplace, in the form of 2003’s Michigan. In many ways, this was the record that put Sufjan Stevens’ brand of folksy, evangelical mid-western americana on the map. Interweaving personal stories with historical and geographical paraphernalia, creating choral and orchestral movements to relate tales of love, loss, and faith.
Just two years later, Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty Records released Illinois. Even more ambitious than Michigan, the record darts undaunted between tenderly picked banjos and chirpy suites recalling show tunes and classic Disney animations, with paragraph-length song titles to match. The liner notes revel that Stevens played a significant portion of the parts himself, on an array of different instruments, while the content focuses on towering historical figures such as Casimir Pulaski and Abraham Lincoln. And, in what is perhaps the greatest hallmark of Stevens’ confidence of all, it includes a song about notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jnr, in which Stevens draws a direct comparison between Gacy and himself, forcing the listener to confront the uncomfortable truth that he was human, too. It’s nothing if not bold.
So, two states down, the project was off to a triumphant start. Where would Steven’s gaze travel next? East to New York? Or way out West to Sunny California? South to Alabama or Texas?
How did Stevens capitalise on the critical, commercial, and artistic momentum that was feverishly building around the 50 states project?
He scrapped it.
After setting out to make 50 concept albums, he gave up after two.
What a beautiful failure.
Is that an oxymoron? Well, I think that’s a matter of perspective.
You see, the thing with failure is; it stings. In the moment, I’m sure the decision to abandon the project was a painful one. I’m sure in part because Stevens admitted as much, saying that he had suffered an “existential creative crisis” and that continuing with the project felt like he was “becoming a cliche of himself.”
But I’m also sure it was a painful decision because I’ve been there myself. Frequently. Never on the same scale of publicity, sure, but I’ve been there all the same. Looking around and thinking “how did I get here?” What sequence of decisions, all taken with the best of intentions, took me down this road, to this unfortunate point, and what do I need to do to turn it around?
If you’ll indulge a little autobiographical background for a moment, just over a year ago (at time of writing) I changed career. Before being a freelance writer, I was a professional German to English translator. It took five years of training, two degrees, an internship, three jobs, and almost a decade before I was confronted with the reality that it wasn’t going to work. My own identity was tied so tightly to my profession that I had an existential crisis of my own, making the pain of facing up to the failure even harder. The grand project of a life-long career in translation had faltered, dramatically.
So I scrapped it.
Sometimes the only recourse we have is to burn it all down and rebuild from the ashes.
Since abandoning the states project – an act that could have ended Stevens whole music career (this 2009 article ends with the line “looks like it might be a while before we hear any albums from Sufjan Stevens, let alone any albums in the 50 States project.”) – Stevens has refocused his artistic efforts. Rather than forcing himself to write an album about, oh I dunno, Idaho, say, out of sheer obligation, he reevaluated. And has come back stronger, delivering scaled back, deeply personal projects, like 2015’s Carrie and Lowell. And it’s the best work he’s ever made, in my opinion.
In order to do the things we really want to do, sometimes we have to let go of the things we’ve told ourselves we need to do.
And that’s what you find me doing now. Rebuilding. In the course of translating other peoples’ words, I had discovered that all I really wanted to do was write my own. Divorced from the feeling of what I was obliged to do – that sunk cost fallacy – I was able to sift through the rubble and start again. And now I’m doing a job I love: writing words for a living. A new project that’s less bound by arbitrary rules I’ve imposed on myself.
My own private Idaho. My own Carrie & Lowell.
So yeah, failure stings. But sometimes failing is necessary.
Embrace the oxymoron.
Embrace the beautiful failure.
Everybody makes mistakes.