While Sufjan Stevens was having his indie moment in the mid-’00s, I stood aside. I appreciated his intelligence and sensitivity and creativity but just wasn’t connecting to the music. It was more interesting than engaging to me, more constructed than heartfelt. Clearly I was in the minority at the time, and whether he’s changed in the interim or I have, the upshot is that this offering from his upcoming album strikes me as deep and rich and true. That he’s done this by replacing the acoustic orchestral instruments he favored in the past with electronic glitchiness is one of the song’s marvelous mysteries.
Stevens here brings his fragile sensibility to the oft-told tale of the jilted lover, infusing the song with the hesitant bewilderment of the unexpectedly dumped. Everything from the music’s stuttery-crackly foundation to Stevens’ delicate, heartbreakingly polite, off-kilter phrasing serves the story, which is not actually recounted but reacted to. We don’t hear about the love affair, we don’t hear about what went wrong, we are left only with the stunned ex-boyfriend trying and failing to make sense of what doesn’t compute; he apparently bolted when he was told the news—thus, “I walked/’Cause you walked.” For a twitchy song, it develops with an unhurried and poignant elegance—a feeling fostered in part by how the verse and the chorus feature closely related melodies, both swelling and asymmetrical, reflecting the narrator’s charged but broken psyche. We don’t hear the chorus till 1:44, and don’t find ourselves at the chorus’s musical and lyrical climax till 1:59, as the melody takes echoing, upward leaps with an affirmation of the jilted lover’s paralyzing inability to face conflict (“I would not have run off/But I couldn’t bear that it’s me/It’s my fault”). It’s the sound of pure heartbreak, expressed through its non-expression.
“I Walked” is one of two new songs available as free and legal downloads via Stevens’ Bandcamp page; both are from his forthcoming album, The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds,” they’re telling us), to be released on Asthmatic Kitty Records next month. The album is loosely based on the so-called “outsider art” of an African-American sign-maker (and self-proclaimed prophet) named Royal Robertson, who died in Louisiana in 1997. Direct MP3 link courtesy of Better Propaganda. (Thanks to visitor Jon for the head’s up on the direct link.)