Sufjan Stevens: Chicago — a guided listen and musical analysis

Deep listening is something I used to do a lot, and I’ve recently found some time to dig into music again the way I used to. Deep listening is one of my favorite things to do when I find a good song or album that affects me in a peculiar way. This week I figured I’d write about a song by Sufjan Stevens called “Chicago”. One of the 100 songs I used to listen to on my mp3 player some years ago.

The song starts with a gentle hammering of a mallet instrument. Panned widely – low notes on the left and high notes on the right. You can hear a slight kind of wobbling effect, which was either added in afterward or was a natural effect of the recording process.

Then the strings come in, there are at least two violins parts – playing one octave apart. The lower panned to the left, the higher panned to the right. Playing a beautiful soaring melody. They bring in the rest of the band: A marching snare drum, smooth guitar arpeggios on the right, and a steady stabilizing bass rhythm. They bring in the idea of the main theme, and then they settle down quickly — as if they are a bunch of rowdy children sitting down “criss-cross applesauce” in school to allow the story to begin.

The vocals begin, with nothing more than an electric piano, stabbing a single repeating chord, and another instrument continuing the bass line from before — only this time it is an octave higher. A simplified, quiet, attention-demanding premise. The violins come back to tease what we now want to hear again — the full, main theme. But instead, we hear the hammered instrument return. A symbol to let us know that the full sound IS coming back very soon, just as it did before.

And sure enough, it does. The main theme comes back to grace our ears with the full, busy sound that almost seems to resemble life itself. This time with the introduction of a vocal melody — which sits about a fifth above the range of the verse and is sung by a small ensemble of multi-gendered singers, at first singing in unison, and when it circles back to the second chorus, the ensemble sings with some added harmonies. It also includes a trumped with a fantastic roomy sound, which you can especially hear at the end of the trumpet part. This song just has so much brilliance and dynamic and it makes me smile with delight.

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