The Complicatist : Sufjan Stevens and outsider art

Hello madness, my old friend…

by Gordon Campbell

Sufjan Stevens seems a person of integrity, so that we can probably cut him slack over his headlong embrace of Royal Robertson, the prime muse and reference point for Stevens’ new album The World Of Adz. Robertson (1936-1997) was certainly an outsider. A black sign-painter and visionary artist from a small town in Louisiana, he was also a paranoid schizophrenic, and the illness fired him up to create some disturbed and (at times) ragingly misogynistic art of genuine power. So in one package you get…skinny white guy embraces exotic black guy with mental problems, women issues, and a head full of aliens, UFOs and pastoral scenes threatened by hurricanes. It sounds…. well, maybe as dodgy as the same skinny white guy singing a compassionate song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy,

This is part of what makes Stevens the unique package that he is – a Christian, genuinely subversive artist. This time round, the electro- dissonance of some parts of the World of Adz and the more traditional choral and orchestral elements can be quite hard going. (Plenty of people have raised Radiohead’s Kid A as a comparison point for this album and that’s been meant as both an insult and a compliment) Give it a proper chance though…. and you’ll find the usual tidal tug to Stevens’ melodies, and such open-hearted emotion that it calls for a generous response. These days, Stevens has reached the happy position where his critics do feel kind of churlish about turning on him. It’s a bit like being mean to a Golden Retriever.

Back to basics….even though Illinoise topped a lot of ‘album of the year’ lists back in 2005, most people still know Sufjan Stevens more by vague name recognition than through immersion in his singular body of music. By consensus, the place to start is the Seven Swans album. “He Woke Me Up Again” is a lovely song about spiritual awakening, yet it has a certain level of menace as well, a la Abraham and Isaac…And then there’s Illinoise. From the many terrific tracks on that album ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades’ has always struck me as a nigh-on definitive song about the transience of childhood love, and the nostalgia it engenders. The song is balanced at the point where innocence tips over into something else :

North of Savannah we swim in the palisades
I come out wearing my brother’s red hat
There on his shoulder my best friend is bit seven times
He runs washing his face in his hands

Oh how I meant to tease him
Oh how I meant no harm
Touching his back with my hand I kiss him
I see the wasp on the length of my arm

The World of Adz is his first full length album since 2005, after a slew of EPs, B-side collections and side projects. Looking back, the All Delighted People EP with its skewed combinations of electronics and brass orchestrations (and the Royal Robertson-like use of fragments of “The Sound of Silence’ on the title track) was a good pointer to where he was headed here.

By all accounts, Stevens has come to treat Robertson as a kindred spirit. It still seems an odd source of consolation. While Robertson (pictured left) had always been an eccentric scholar and self-proclaimed prophet, the full blown onset of his mental illness eventually led him to renounce his wife Adella for imagined infidelity, and to treat his twelve children as bastards, fathered by someone else. It is an extremely sad story. Towards the end of his life, Robertson festooned the exterior of his house with apocalyptic paintings of UFOs and aliens, and with vengeful images of his failed marriage. Inside, he built shrines to the same tormented themes,

During his final years, art dealers and collectors became Robertson’s main lifeline to the outside world. (Stevens first heard of him through one of his friends, an art dealer.) As Stevens has explained at recent concerts, Robertson became an inspiration during the singer’s own recent psychological and creative difficulties. The overall message being I suppose ….that out of the suffering and isolation of mental illness, works of great power and beauty can still emerge. Largely thanks to Robertson, Stevens says, he felt free freed from creative expectations of any sort.

Bully for him. Robertson is not the first time that Stevens has touched base with a tormented outsider artist. Arguably, John Wayne Gacy falls into the same category. I still find it hard to decide whether the song’s final identification with Gacy is redemptive, or just glib :

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Really, the behaviour has been that bad ? Twenty six bodies under the floorboards, seven others dumped elsewhere…those kind of secrets? No, didn’t think so.

There’s more. On his Avalanche out-takes album, Stevens featured a track called “ The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies” ….which is a hat tip to yet another outsider artist, the reclusive writer, painter and janitor, Henry Darger. Unlike Robertson, Darger (1892-1973) is not regarded as having been insane. (The usual explanation offered for Darger’s eccentricity is Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism.) Darger’s place in art history hinges on a colossal work that was discovered only after his death – a 15, 000 page fantasy novel (with hundreds of related drawings and watercolour paintings of compelling beauty) that he called The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, Obviously, the New York indie band Vivian Girls took their name from Darger’s magnum opus.

Stevens is not alone in being attracted to people on the borderline between creativity and madness. Werner Herzog has spent his life seeking out and feeding on people living at the emotional extremes, from Klaus Kinski to Timothy eaten by bears. Thanks entirely to Stevens I guess, the world knows a lot more now than they ever would have otherwise about Royal Robertson, but that’s turned out to be a mixed blessing. On Youtube clips of his recent concerts, it is striking that whenever Stevens starts to talk about Robertson’s bizarre and tormented life. the audience tends to respond with bursts of laughter. (What a wild and crazy guy etc.) The Robertson connection has ended up as a form of insanity chic – and you’d think Stevens must be feeling a few misgivings about it by now.

Insanity chic can backfire, too. Sometimes in karmically appropriate ways. In the 1980s for instance, Van Halen used a painting called ‘The Maze’ on the cover of their Fair Warning album – a work painted in 1953 by the Canadian artist William Kurelek, after he spent time in a mental hospital. The forbidding cover may be one of the main reasons Fair Warning turned out to be the worst selling album in the band’s entire David Lee Roth era.

Around the same time, REM all but dopted another outsider artist, the Reverend Howard Finster (1916-2001) as a sort of band mascot. It was Finster who painted the striking cover of REM’s Reckoning album – he also did the cover for the Talking Heads album Little Creatures – and the video for REM’s breakthrough single ‘Radio Free Europe’ was shot at his rambling property, called Paradise Gardens. Like Robertson, Finster eventually turned his home into an art display, and similarly put up signs and paintings that combined Bible verses, pop culture and science fiction in bizarre juxtapositions. On REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction album, the ‘Maps and Legends’ track was meant as a tribute to Finster.

For some musicians, mental turmoil isn’t borrowed but rises from within. Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson and Jeff Mangum have all lived on the boundary line of psychological instability. For fans of Neutral Milk Hotel, I’ve posted below a terrific 1997 clip of Mangum doing a series of songs from the Airplane Over the Sea album. After an uncertain start on ‘Two Headed Boy’ (which he quickly abandons) Mangum hits stride with a great version of “Gardenhead’ and then does “King of Carrot Flowers” in its blazing entirety. Among other things, Jeff Mangum is living rebuttal to the idea that mental problems and creativity need always be in some exploitative, vicariously creepy relationship….

I’m sure exploitation wasn’t the intention behind Stevens’ use of Royal Robertson. Here anyway, is the first half of the 25 minute ‘Impossible Souls’ final track on Adz, that dances around the central issue. Either you can choose to live safely, Stevens suggests, talking the language of ghosts…or you can risk being and feeling something else. Do you want to know delight? Do you want to be afraid? The scariest things, Sufjan sings sympathetically in the final line on the album, are not half as enslaved.

Footnote : Have just found out that Stevens and his eleven piece touring posse of musicians, chorists and dancers will doing concerts in Auckland on February 7 and Wellington, February 8. Tickets through Ticketmaster and Ticketek. He’s a terrific live performer, well able to resolve onstage the contradictions I’ve raised here. You should think seriously about being there. Via Stereogum, here’s a spanking new version of “ Too Much” from the Adz album, (done on the Jimmy Fallon late show just the other night) in all of its King Tut glory.