Sufjan Stevens is a household name… if you happen to live in an indie-rock household. Among the broader pool of Oscar-watching or -voting homes, there may be a bigger Sufjan-ian learning curve. (For starters: his name is pronounced soof-yon.) The singer/songwriter who just snagged a nomination for “Mystery of Love,” one of his contributions to the “Call Me By Your Name” soundtrack, doesn’t easily lend himself to any nutshell treatment, as any novice who’s come away confused from Stevens’ sprawling Wikipedia page can attest.
He hasn’t been a mystery to music supervisors, anyway. The two songs he contributed to “Call Me By Your Name” represent his first original compositions for a nonfiction feature film, but most TV viewers, at least, have probably happened across his music before. His song “Death With Dignity” was featured in the pilot episode of “This is Us” and recurred toward the end of the season. Going back a decade-plus, “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” was licensed for both “Weeds” and “Nip/Tuck.” Various tracks were employed in “Friday Night Lights,” “The O.C.,” “Ray Donovan,” “One Tree Hill,” and “Grace and Frankie.” On the big screen, “Chicago” popped up in both “Little Miss Sunshine” and the “Veronica Mars” movie.
But it’s hard to imagine a less “Hollywood”-aspirational musician than Stevens, who very much marches to his own banjo (to cite one of the instruments he was most identified with in his early career). Up until now, he’s been more likely to work on projects for the New York City Ballet or the Brooklyn Academy of Music than write music for films. And he’s not the type to do a lot of interviews, much less host or glad-hand at L.A. parties, which may help explain why his Oscar nomination wasn’t preceded by a Golden Globes nod.
The Brooklyn-based Stevens’ biggest breakthrough was with the album “Illinois,” which was ranked by Metacritic as the best reviewed release of 2005. It was the second in a series of what Stevens once claimed would be albums devoted to all 50 states (although, years after that and “Michigan,” he acknowledged these concept albums were… well, not a one-off, but a two-off). His far-reaching ambitions and dry humor were signaled in song titles like ““Come On! Feel The Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandberg Visits Me In A Dream).” Other projects followed, to nearly the same level of acclaim, including “The Age of Adz,” which ditched his signature acoustic folksiness and/or full orchestration for electronica. He scaled those full critical heights again with 2015’s “Carrie and Lowell,” a harrowing song cycle inspired by the death of his oft-estranged mother — albeit not so downbeat that it didn’t help introduce him to millions of TV viewers, when “Death With Dignity” was picked up for the most rewarded new prime-time drama in years.
His seven official studio albums have been complemented by more side projects than even hardcore fans could easily keep score of: 100 extremely eclectic Christmas songs collected into two boxed sets; the BAM-commissioned “BQE,” a film-and-symphony hybrid centered on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; and a classical project, “Planetarium,” in collaboration with composer Nico Muhly and the National’s Bryce Dessner, inspired by the solar system and astrological themes. He wrote the soundtrack for a documentary, “Beyond This Place,” and toured behind it with a small orchestra for a series of screening/concerts. Then there was his recent salute to an unlikely personal heroine, “Tonya Harding” (which might have counted as “film work,” if only the “I, Tonya” producers to whom he sent it on spec had responded affirmatively).
But even harder to encapsulate than Stevens’ discography is his sensibility. His music has been alternately infused with a sense of wonder and sheer sorrow, whimsy and earnestness, historical archness and sheer autobiography, Christian faith and agnostic despair. As with his religion, Stevens’ sexuality has been a point of conjecture for fans, with just enough gay subtext to the song “Futile Devices” that it made sense that director Luca Guadagnino commissioned a remake of that track for “Call Me By Your Name,” along with the two original songs that Stevens wrote for the film. (Besides “Mystery of Love,” the other is a closing-credits song, “Visions of Gideon”; worries that Academy voters might split their votes between the two choices didn’t come to fruition).
In his “Call Me By Your Name” contributions, fans recognize twin aspects of Stevens’ enduring appeal: He’s intellectual enough to casually name-check Hephaestion and Alexander, but poignant enough to reach well beyond his heady tendencies to something purely heartfelt. So… is Oscar really ready to reward rock’s foremost emo-lectual?