Album release as public address?

This is a bit of a far cry from the usual interpretation of “public address”, but I felt the need to take into consideration releasing music to the public as a form of address.  True, many musicians set out to write music for their own piece of mind, but when they release it to the public, it’s not just about them anymore.  It’s also about how everyone who sets ear upon that album will interpret their music, and that is something a musician needs to keep in mind with each new release.

This dawned on me upon hearing Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, The Age of Adz, and upon reading an interview with the Chicago Tribune about this new release.  The album, unlike all his others, is very musically dense.  His earlier albums focused mainly on quiet guitar-and-banjo types of ballads and narratives, but this album incorporates intense amounts of electronics, disonant choirs, and drum machines.  It is so distant from his earlier works that, in the interview, the Chicago Tribune interviewer asked him about it:

Q: Your fans seem very dedicated and serious. Was the new record an attempt to (purposely alienate them), like, “Let’s see how you like this?”

A: Well, yeah. I think that some of it is a bit provocative, but most of it I think is me challenging myself and trying to inhabit a new musical environment. And I think that musicians who did that will often lose some listenership, and I think that’s a risk you have to take. And I agree, I don’t think this record is for everyone. And for the casual fan who likes my folk songs and my pop songs, this record might be a little bit frenetic and explicit. I don’t expect everyone to kind of go along with it.

Stevens owns up to releasing material that some of his fans may frown upon.  He even sort of admits to “purposely alienating”, or to throwing a curve ball to, his long-time fans.  While some listeners may call this irresponsibility or carelessness by completely casting aside the opinions of his fanbase, I think he made the right decision by saying this.  Such a drastic change in style might demand an explanation, and in this case, I think he handled it quite well.  I say this for two reasons: one, he stayed true to himself and released music that he believed in, and two, he didn’t pussyfoot around when he was asked about it.  He handled the interviewer’s question in a very sensible and diplomatic way, and admitted to the risks he was taking with the new album’s release.  I’m glad he took the risk as a musician and put this new work out there, and the way he behaved during all the inquiry about it was very appropriate. Good job, Sufjan.

-Courtney Flynn (surprise surprise)

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