THE SADNESS OF SUFJAN
Experiencing the Fullness of Grief
Almost a decade ago, I discovered Sufjan Stevens and quickly decided he was my favorite artist. I’ve discovered a lot of other artists since then, but he still easily holds that distinction.
When I saw him for the first time in 2010, his first tour in five years, it was instantly the best show I had ever been to. and it helped me appreciate his stylistic change into big, messy, electronic sounds on his Age of Adz album.
Then I went to see him at an eccentric live Christmas song sing-along show in Austin, and it was easily the most fun I ever had at a live show. It had the frenetic energy of a Japanese game show.
And so, when Sufjan Stevens came by Portland, I knew I would have to go see him for a third time.
And when that performance fell on mine and Deanna’s third anniversary, I knew our date for that evening was planned by destiny. After all, our very first conversation was about Suf. After finally getting to eat the iconic Pok Pok fish sauce wings for dinner, we made our way to the Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Here’s the short version: we went to an incredible performance. You don’t get such a beautifully broken and vulnerable performance like this too often.
Sufjan played through his new Carrie & Lowell album in its entirety, almost in order. Some songs, like No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross he kept acoustic, hauntingly resonant, and softly sung. Others, he dressed up with electronic arrangements, which added a firm, sensual element to Should Have Known Better.
My favorite song off the album is Eugene– not just because it’s named for the city I moved to ten months ago (although, imagine my thrill when I found that my favorite artist’s tracklist included my home city’s name) but because it’s the most beautiful. The song reminisces over Sufjan’s visits to Eugene in his childhood, to spend summers with his mom. The album is dedicated to his mom and stepdad, following his mom’s death. Her life and their relationship was disrupted by her schizophrenia and other disorders, coupled with drug addictions. Yet, in interviews, Sufjan has a fondness for his childhood summers in Oregon, and the song Eugene reflects the simple beauty of swimming lessons.
Played live, it was beautiful and it was messy. I often wonder at how artists at his level of notoriety can manage to perform the same songs night after night. I joke that the Black Eyed Peas must be vomit-sick of I’ve Got a Feeling. But as Sufjan played through Eugene, he did so imperfectly, allowing his fingers to trip over guitar strings and fighting vocal cracks. Sufjan is a polished and skilled musician. Those stammers came from within. He plays this song every night and still feels it like that.
There’s nothing new about art being birthed out of pain, but the great artists can still hit nerves in ways that feel fresh and untouched. What’s amazing, is that every song on Carrie & Lowell has its own hue, delivering the full palate of the tension found in grief.
The evening’s set began with Death With Dignity, the first of many, many Oregonian references. He sung honestly, “I don’t know where to begin” as the set was backdropped with screens playing footage of childhood videos. Fourth of July felt as though it was sung from a hospital bedside, boldly lamenting mortality while repeatedly plating heavenly imagery. Then there’s Should Have Known Better, struggling to come to terms with a less than ideal past in the midst of mourning. Eugene is a reminder that there’s even a strange sweetness to grief, like an inside-out nostalgia.
And of course, there’s a deeply spiritual side to Sufjan’s mourning. At the show, he also played Casimir Pulaski Day, an old classic I think is one of the sweetest and most heartfelt songs about death ever written, of the “complications” that arise when we “see God’s face” at our last moments.
One of the more memorable conversations I’ve had with my pastor was how our culture handles grief pretty poorly. I have my own frustrations with the way faith is sometimes portrayed as escapism, rather than presence through darkness. But, as a believer in death alongside resurrection, as well as the awkward day of uncertainty in between, I find Sufjan’s spiritual honesty refreshing.
It’s an album written from the in-between day, but with a wider focus. It’ll recall the pains of death and hope for resurrection, all in subtle, fleeting ways. Drawn to the Blood asks the questions almost all who mourn ask. “What did I do to deserve this? God of Elijah…” No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross expresses doubt via imagery of his mother’s addiction.
And yet, there’s hope. Starting with the hope that stems from no other options. When he sings “Jesus, I need you, be near, come shield me…” on John My Beloved it’s sung simply, childlike, and desperate. It’s the moment of brokenness of having nowhere else to go, which in my experience is where faith really takes root. It’s no longer escapism, at that point, but as Sufjan put it, The Only Thing that keeps him from driving a car off a cliff. “Blind faith. God’s grace.”
And it ends without an ending, but a hint of hope. My Blue Bucket of Gold is a reference to a local legend in Oregon, one so obscure, most Oregonians my age don’t know it. Sufjan is upfront about being in a low place, but is also persistent about searching for anything higher. “Lord, touch me with lightning.”
When you listen to this album, it’s played in a way that always sounds soft, no matter how much you crank the volume. But make no mistake, this is a heavy album.
I left the Schnitzer Hall with a copy of the album on vinyl, something I only do for a small number of albums I treasure. Now that I live at the foot of Spencer’s Butte, I might enjoy hearing him echo “Found myself on Spencer’s Butte!”