catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 7 :: 2009.03.27 — 2009.04.10


Why I am still listening to Sufjan Stevens

Some of you may have heard it for years now: Sufjan, Sufjan, Sufjan.  I have. And yet I can’t stop-and don’t want to stop-listening. Although I am also a bit tired of all the analysis of Sufjan Stevens’ enigmatic public persona that obsesses certain circles, I am not tired of the music itself, or of the conversation that it instigates.  Let me explain. 

I find Stevens’ music both comforting and terrifying-and often for the same reasons.  The inner shakiness I experienced when I first really listened to Stevens’ music reminds me of the great unsettling I felt when, in college, I first devoured Flannery O’Connor’s writing.  The violence in Stevens’ music, distantly similar to the grotesque violence of O’Connor’s fiction, is what makes it believable.  What? Sweet Suffie’s music?  Violent?  Yes, frighteningly honest in its violence. And not just his two “serial killer” songs, either. The same Sufjan Stevens whose gentle, hushed voice and rich orchestral flourishes are the farthest things from edgy?  Yes.  He’s clearly no David Bazan-there is no machismo, no anger-driven vocal energy with raw, even profane, lyrics to match.  Yet his music is equally as honest, and in a refreshingly different way.  In order to explain my particular fascination and identification, let me begin with the story of my own introduction to Stevens’ music.

My first exposure (but not my first real listen) was when Sufjan Stevens played at Calvin College’s 2004 Festival of Faith and Writing.  I had heard that he, Rosie Thomas and Denison Witmer were performing together, but in my self-righteous ignorance, I made no effort to attend; I feared CCM-flavored, “accessible,” hip Christian music. Months later, when I finally bought Stevens’ Seven Swans and actually opened space in my life and mind with which to listen, I was deeply moved, excited, frightened, and felt compelled to worship God. The first lyrics that struck me with their honest humanizing vulnerability were from the song “A Good Man is Hard to Find:”

Once in the backyard
She was once like me
She was once like me
Twice when I killed them
They were once at peace
They were once like me

The fearful tenderness with which Stevens sang the line “Twice when I killed them” was deeply alarming.  And strangely comforting. Ironically, I didn’t even know the title of the song or its association with O’Connor’s popular story about the brief identity-defining relationship between a serial killer called The Misfit and a grandmother, one of the victims of The Misfit’s joyless conquests.  I sensed such a rich emotional core to this song, and was deeply struck by its awful honesty.  In this song, and so many of his others, Stevens, like O’Connor, discloses the possibility of violence inherent in each of us.  This violence is not always physical, although we do see this clearly in Stevens’ serial killer songs, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

Stevens does not shy away from the violence of distorted family dynamics, as we see in “The Mistress Witch of McClure,” in which a son who has discovered his father’s marital infidelity tells us that the exposed father is “pointing at my throat” and that “my brother has a fit in the snow.”  This same song questions the presence or absence of God in the midst of such violence, and acknowledges that “a mind that knows itself / has a mind to kill the other.” The physical violence of broken relationships is also present in “Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly in His Hair” when the song’s narrator imagines his angry wife taking “a bicycle ride with a knife in her hand.” 

The violence in Sufjan Stevens’ music is not limited to the realm of a few unhinged individuals-it is not just the obvious physical sort, but the violence of any broken relationship, of words that are said out of context, of expectations that have not been met.  Often this (perceived) violence is in the disappointing incongruity between the narrator’s desires and the actions of God.  This is an obvious focus in “Casimir Pulaski Day,” in which a high school lover must, even after petitioning Him, confront the reality of God’s presence alongside the seemingly “unfair” death of his girlfriend: “Tuesday night at the Bible study / we lift our hands and pray over your body / but nothing ever happens.” I have taught English writing and literature at a number of public universities and Christian colleges, and this song is, by far, the song that tends to generate the most passionate, if not confused, discussion.  Christian students often don’t understand how one can sing a song of faith that includes the presence of violent, disappointed doubt.  Other students often read it as a “loss of faith” narrative that perhaps reflects their own.  The awkward convergence of faith and death is chilling, disorienting, violent: “All the glory that the Lord has made/ and the complications when I see His face / in the morning in the window.” 

Stevens’ songs do not often end without any healing of the apparent ruptures within (although some, including “The Mistress Witch,” do), but point towards a moment of reconciliation. The violent opposition of the protagonist’s skewed notion of reality and the truth of a larger Reality meet each other in an apocalyptic moment that is often filled with pain and submission. The end of “Casimir Pulaski Day” is just one poignant example: “All the glory when He took our place / but He took my shoulders and He shook my face / and He takes and He takes and He takes.” This allusion to Job 1:21 is part of a lament, but its sadness is not complete, as there is a consistent underpinning of God’s grace, wisdom, and love, even in the midst of seemingly absurd tragedy: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

But are these “resolutions” or hints towards resolutions too easy?  Stevens does not take much time explaining, in a theological sense, the redemption that often parallels the violence in his songs: “All the glory when He took our place.”  In some sense, Stevens is leaving things uneasy, not easy. He does not try to explain the mystery. I like this. And I like that the pain, violence and doubt are often mentioned as much as, or more than, the “glory” – this, I believe, is realistic human grappling with the mysteries of faith.  Again like O’Connor, Stevens’ stories and their “resolutions” are not sentimental-the presence of transcendence and faith does not mean the complete absence of doubt, pain and violence.

My last example of Stevens’ honest look at the violence of the human condition is in a song from his Christmas collection. Lots of Christmas music makes me groan.  It is, by commodified nature, sentimental, “jolly,” gag-worthy – especially if it has anything to do with Santa or rockin’ around the tree or any of the overproduced, saccharine schmaltz that is basically muzac for Christmas.

But Stevens’ “That was the Worst Christmas Ever” is one of the most real, touching, complete Christmas songs I have ever heard. This picture of hope and redemption in the midst of a very dysfunctional family situation speaks reality into the plasticized, hunky dory notions of Christmas gatherings depicted in most Christmas-related rhetoric. For many people, family harmony and vacuum-packed faith are not the reality of Christmas and Stevens emphasizes the brokenness, of a family, of an individual, that needs some sort of healing. For some folks, Christmas is not a happy time. Maybe a great deal of this is due to the fact that the falsified notions of peace, love and joy embodied in plastic smiles and jolly music highlight the pain of family discord, questions about faith, the hardness of life. This song does not ignore the hardships, pain and dysfunction, yet emphasizes that this is exactly the real reason for Christmas (literally, a mass for Christ). The violent details of a parent throwing a child’s presents into the fire and a daughter running away from home both offset the soft, breathy singing voice, calling attention to the consistent presence of both beauty and pain that is the disturbing mixture of our real lives: “Silent night, holy night; silent night, nothing feels right… / in time the snow will rise, in time the snow will rise / in time the Lord will rise, in time the Lord will rise.” Pain. Violence. Ugliness. Redemption. Resurrection.

Although Stevens is not afraid to include elements of lament, doubt, sorrow and violence in his music, he is also brave enough to not romanticize this deep, deep sadness and allow it to become fashionable despair.

These are not the only things I love about Stevens’ music-he is a master composer, a witty, complex lyricist; he is also very, very funny. But this combination of the unsettling and the glorious, is what, for me, endures.  It tells the truth.

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