In the age of digital streaming music, entire discographies are at your fingertips but the concept of the rarity is on its last legs. The End of Scarcity is a feature that attempts to spotlight the deep cuts from big names that can’t be found on Spotify or bought on iTunes. Demos, B-Sides, Covers, whatever — things that require a close searching. Today: Sufjan Stevens.
I’m eagerly anticipating the 10 year anniversary retrospective essays coming out next year to commemorate Illinois, the album that really started it all for the always unknowable Sufjan Stevens. Back in ’09, the thirst for new Sufjan was real. He had taken two tours out of Illinois, including a collection of B-sides in The Avalanche, and generally seemed to be taking his time in making new music. Which is great! People should take as long as they need! But in the mean time, a lot of us were chomping at the bit for something other than Christmas songs.
The best we got was a 10 minute epic, recorded from his live tour, called “Majesty Snowbird.” Sufjan uses bird imagery a lot, most famously in the public radio-comissioned “Lord God Bird,” and during this particular tour he called his backing band “The Magical Butterfly Brigade” and had everyone wearing colorful wings. In retrospect, it seems obvious that this song was tour-specific.
That is further supported by the fact that this song was never properly recorded or published. It just lives in our memories and in a half dozen YouTube recordings. Since then, Sufjan has published an orchestral suite, an album-length EP, and a proper LP. None of them had any hint of “Majesty Snowbird,” and if you look at where he’s at today (writing orchestral suites about the solar system, providing beats with Sisyphus) he’s probably moved on from this entire style.
So all we have is this. I hadn’t listened to this song in a while, but it still gets to me at certain parts. The way the guitar solo rises out of the ashes about 7 minutes in is a favorite, a true out-of-the-desert moment, a technique that you can see fully formed on his 2012 LP The Age of Adz on songs like “I Want To Be Well.” Something about this song existing only as a live show makes it more poignant, like we’re never going to hear it in its full, crisp, clean glory, it just lives on as something you had to be there for.