Single Review: Sufjan Stevens – Reach Out
Floris de Bruin reviews Sufjan Steven’s single with Angelo De Augustine, Reach Out.
Reach Out opens to a melodious acoustic fingerpicking pattern that immediately sets one at ease. It feels rustic, unedited, and authentic – reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’s artistic masterstroke, the album “Carrie & Lowell” released in 2015. The strings foster a degree of intimacy and familiarity with the listener. The sound is light and soft, communicating sensitivity and expectation as the tune loops, ready to accommodate the oncoming vocals.
Nostalgia and the process of reworking a troubled past
As Stevens and Angelo De Augustine sing together in close harmony, listeners are confined to hearing the song out in its entirety. The artists do not demand our attention; instead, they lure us into a space that is at once comfortable but freighted with intense emotion.
Nostalgia and the process of reworking a troubled past are foregrounded in the opening words of the song: “I have a memory / Of a time and place where history resigned.” The vocals are fragile and vulnerable, in the theme of childhood innocence, as they disclose mistakes made, painful emotions and lessons learnt.
One of the hard-learnt lessons is to “reach out to all the ones who came before you”. Explorations of ancestry, childhood, family and faith are staples of Stevens’s repertoire and are very much at the foreground here.
This particular command to “reach out” echoes his own experience with his mother: a schizophrenic, bipolar and substance abuser who had abandoned Stevens many times (Pitchfork). After she died in 2012 of stomach cancer, Steven sings in his record “Should Have Known Better”: “I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling.” He reproaches himself for not trying harder to reconnect with his mother.
The power in the song undoubtedly lies in its lyrical qualities, the lines speaking so many truths and obscure admissions to name in this small article. Notable mentions are “I would rather be a flower than the ocean” and “I would rather be devoured than be broken”. I will leave that to you to decode.
It is clear to the fans of Stevens that he has temporarily put his experimentalist and multiform projects to one side, such as his latest album “Convocations,” which features five volumes of stirring instrumental music. Instead, we return to the style that typifies Stevens as a folk artist, one where he weaves his sensitivity into his craft with toned-down instrumentals.
On Stevens website, he explains: “I made an album with my friend Angelo De Augustine called A Beginner’s Mind—a collection of folk songs loosely based on films.” Based in a cabin in upstate New York, the two spent their days watching films together, using that as artistic inspiration.
“Reach Out” is one of two songs released as a teaser of his upcoming album and is inspired explicitly by Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. The album will be released on September 24 for none other than Asthmatic Kitty Records, his stepfather’s recording company.
If you feel inclined to listen to the song, I would suggest watching the music video. It has a retro vibe, featuring VHS-camcorder footage of the artist’s dogs, Joku and Charlie. It complements the song nicely.