Fourth of July by Sufjan Stevens
In general, this genre of soft/experimental/indie pop has one major downfall: lack of a clean melody. Not the case with Sufjan; this musician knows how to effectively write in this style better than anyone I have listened to. Listening to the first 30 seconds, I was already sold on the sound and the emotional message coming across (this is not a song for the weak of heart), but I was afraid that the melody would do too much to match the mood and not enough to engage the ear. However, the melodic figures in this song actually become the focal point due to their appropriate length, simplicity, and meaningful shape. A song like this normally relies on the beauty of the entire soundscape and the background effects to make it enjoyable, but its the melody that comes through in the midst of the beauty, which gives this song a whole new emotional height and level of appreciation. The range was used perfectly, and although the fragments were short, they carried an immense amount of weight. It’s not a melody that can necessarily stand on its own or be recognizable in its own right, but it does wonders for the song.
Sometimes lack of tonal stability is nothing but irritating, and sometimes it gives a sense of awe and wonder. This song is certainly an example of the ladder. I can best describe this harmony as a simple skeleton with a beautiful work of art inside. At its core, the verses have a rather simplistic V-I-V-I-V-IV progression. This in itself works extremely well within the context, because it gives the listener a ground level that they can understand so that the song doesn’t become too esoteric. It is also a creative use of the most well-known chords. A vi chord is thrown in a transition points, which is only natural. The art that is created within this skeleton comes from the lingering notes that go from consonance to dissonance depending on the underlying chord, as well as the constant changing of roots in the chord that effectively hide the actual harmony in some cases. When working with the same four chords, you can’t get much more creative than this. There were times when I thought the masking of the harmony didn’t always resolve where I thought it needed to go, but it nonetheless created a beautiful scene in itself.
What does the unconditional love that a son has to his mother sound like? While that may be impossible to articulate in words, Sufjan Stevens has given it a sound, and it is this song. Such a difficult task that musicians have slaved over for centuries, and to my ears, Sufjan found it. The melody and harmony are nice and pleasant enough to make a solid song. The timbre of this piece launches it from solid to great. How one takes these simple melodic fragments with an acquiescent harmony and make them sound like the greatest love in the world, we will never truly know. But Sufjan did it. The deep attention to silence, soft dynamics, and the echoes in the background are simply phenomenal. He creates an extremely delicate atmosphere that only listeners who are searching for deep emotional connection can fully enter. The pulsing sound of the keyboard resembles a heartbeat that not only keeps the piece flowing, but connects itself to your own heart. Bittersweet and magical.
The one thing sorely lacking from this music is its audience. Some say this music only pertains to a select group of people and that it doesn’t have much of a chance when stacked against the mainstream desires of those who listen to music. Of course, Sufjan shouldn’t care, since he’s doing what he loves and pouring his soul into his art. For me, as a musician and music journalist, this matters to me immensely. There is no good reason why this music cannot breach the “alt-hipster-emotional” crowd (you probably know what I mean). In no way would I identify myself as part of that crowd, but I believe that this music is some of the most inspiring sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s a crime that incredibly composed songs like these are hardly advertised to the masses, while at the same time everyone knows the lyrics to an idiotic half-assed pop tune about being yourself or dancing until the sun comes up. It’s a disgrace to our culture. On the other hand, within those select circles that find true emotional connection to music, this song (and the album as a whole) has been revolutionary. If only we could hear it on the radio or at a music awards show once in a while.
Final Score: 153/180