Who would have thought that Sufjan Stevens would become one of the most prolific songwriters of this decade? Not me. I was so far out of it back in 2000 that A Sun Came! did not even come close to entering my then smallish indie radar. And what a shame, cause this album is better than whoever you’ve read is telling you. Add the fact that all of the music on A Sun Came! was actually written and recorded around 1998 and Stevens’ genius becomes even more apparent. Before he began his ambitious and already colossally successful fifty states project, there was this circus of a folk record. Compared to the cohesiveness of his states project albums (check out Michigan and Illinois for some of the most heartfelt tributes a locale has ever received), A Sun Came! feels a little disjointed and longwinded at almost one hour and twenty minutes on this reissue.
Which would be a big problem, if the album wasn’t full of wonderful patches of music. In place of this diminished structure is the sense of adventure that accompanies a musician’s first outing. It becomes less about a concern for cohesion and more about fully harvesting a fertile mind. “We Are What You Say” begins the album as most would expect with banjo and Stevens’ hushed whisper of a voice. “A Winner Needs a Wand” follows with piano, guitar, drums, flute (there are many on this record) and electric guitar near the end—it features a couple of wonderful cascading codas and for the most part it is a great early Sufjan Stevens song (as are plenty of the tracks on this albums first half). “Dumb I Sound” is a sparse plea, with Stevens’ vocals floating over the light percussion and flute until the song degrades into manipulated, scary sounds. “Wordsmith’s Ridge” is another highlight, featuring some of the most beautiful instrumentation on record.
“Jason” is one of the second half’s most beautiful tracks, Stevens repeating the phrase “You’re the only one” as smooth guitar accompanies additional, distorted vocals and Flaming Lips weirdness. Elsewhere though, as on “Satan’s Saxophones,” a weird voice says some stupid shit (as it has done periodically throughout the record) as wild saxophones bleat around crazily as if they were alive and being stabbed to death. After that comes one of the bonus tracks, “Joy! Joy! Joy!,” which is almost, well, a medicated dance song. Such moments stick out like sore thumbs. But really, all of these songs are interesting in their own right. A Sun Came! plays like Stevens’ book of short stories, the precursor to his bold strokes of literary genius.
The first half of the album is definitely much better than the second, and if the whole thing were trimmed down to its best parts we’d have another long lost gem in our hands. But as it turns out, Stevens is (was) just as creative and excited to be making music as we always knew he was, and the songs on A Sun Came! are his baby steps. The result is like looking back at your child’s pieces of art after they’ve grown up. Messy, magical and comforting.
- Andrew Iliadis