Sufjan Stevens is always full of surprises. After releasing a a new mixtape (“The Greatest Gift – Outtakes, Remixes, and Demos from Carrie and Lowell) and a few new songs for the hit indie film “Call Me By Your Name,” the musical artist has released another new song. The track documents the life of Tonya Harding, the figure skater who made national news in the 90s for her role in a planned attack on another skater.
Although this sort of song seems out of left field for the folk musician, it’s not surprising when you consider Sufjan’s ongoing fascination with the stranger characters from America’s past. One of the songs on his 2006 album “Illinois” chronicled the life of John Wayne Gacy Jr., the notorious serial killer. Back then, Sufjan used Gacy’s life to cast a mirror on the darkest parts of himself.
Sufjan’s tendency to view life and culture through a mythological lens seems cut in stone by now. Stories of legendary monsters and mythical events have permeated his music from the beginning. His track “Wallowa Lake Monster” from “The Greatest Gift” was another prime example, and “Tonya Harding” is no different. In the song, Sufjan examines the rise and fall of one of figure skating’s most celebrated personalities.
“Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are
Just some Portland white trash
You confronted your sorrow
Like there was no tomorrow
While the rest of the world only laughed”
The music for the song is delightful, a very Sufjan blend of shimmering ambience and powerful piano chords. The languid drums and bright synth only add to the songs dreamlike rhythm and feel, lending weight to the artist’s examination of Tonya Harding’s life.
Sufjan uses Harding’s story to build a mythological story of hopes and dreams, one where someone from any background could achieve whatever goals they set their sights on. In the song, Harding is the hero of the American Dream, a person who came from nothing to be a star in a sport for the privileged and wealthy. That she would fall so far from the top is part of the mythology too, completing the tragedy of Sufjan’s story, one that documents the mythology of fame and the cost of being in the spotlight.
“Has the world had its fun?
Yeah they’ll make such a hassle
And they’ll build you a castle
Then destroy it when they’re done”
“Tonya Harding” makes me wonder. What else does Sufjan have up his sleeve? After a year of thought-provoking projects and fun surprises, the artist seems to be in a strong creative mode. I wouldn’t be surprised if the artist had another album in the works for 2018, or at least another off-the-wall idea to share with the world. Either way, I can look forward to more mythological epics from this born storyteller and musical auteur.