Considering that it was first written during the making of their last album, 2015’s ‘Carrie & Lowell’, Sufjan Stevens’ new epic now feels eerily prophetic. When Stevens sings “don’t do to me what you did to America” it’s as if he’s begging an abstract force of fate to spare him from obliteration. The US has seen its fair share of dystopia since that release, after all: from the election of Donald Trump and his subsequent attempts to roll back the existing rights of already marginalised people in the States, to the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has reportedly killed around 115,000 Americans.
Stevens originally dismissed ‘America’ because, he says in a statement “it felt vaguely mean-spirited” – but though there’s an urgency woven through the song’s climatic, thumping middle section particularly, it also feels rooted in hopefulness. ‘America’ acknowledges the wounds and flaws in whoever (or whatever) it is addressed to, but holds them tenderly; there is a sense that, though history may have a tendency to repeat itself, it does not have to.“I am fortune,” Stevens sings, “I am free, am I the fever of life in the land of opportunity?” As with ‘Tonya Harding’ – his 2017 song about the US figure skater of the same name, best known for her potential involvement in a plot to attack and injure her main skating rival – ‘America’ takes something complicated, and sits with all its contradictions.
Weighty and substantial, ‘America’ instead feels like a journey of different, meandering sections – as complex and varied as its namesake. It shifts from sun-stained stutters of synth (bringing to mind Stevens’ evocative contributions to Call Me By Your Name’s soundtrack) to overwrought peals of guitar – eventually fading away into a bleak drone, and ethereal choirs.
But does any song really need to be 12-minutes long? Perhaps Sufjan was planning on churning out his remaining 48 state-themed concept records from his half-joking ‘Fifty States Project’ all in one go? From a lot of artists, such a lengthy statement might feel like a bit of a slog; even if there’s a wider point to be unearthed about people’s attention spans at the centre. Luckily, Stevens is one of few artists who can just about get away with it.