All the Glory That the Lord Has Made, or, Whose Hands the Church has Fallen Into
"Te-gan and Sa-ra? I mean, God...Te-gan?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's bad enough that they're two eye-rolling teenage lesbians who are sisters, but why does one of them have to be named one of those American not-names like...
"Tee-gan!" he said.
And then I started talking about Sufjan Stevens. I mean, 'Soof-yawn'? What kind of killingly cute bullshit is that? And the fact that he's some sort of hipster crypto-christer...With a whiny little bitch voice, and pretension to spare...If he weren't the best musical arranger currently known to me in American pop music, he'd have a lot to answer for.
I know my history well enough to understand that some of the greatest art made in human history was made to celebrate the glory of God, regardless of how I feel about that, or anything I might know about the commerce aspect of that sort of thing.
There's the story about Rafael, after painting the usual insanely beautiful images on the cieling of some chapel somewhere, and is approached by a bishop or cardinal or some similar professional liar/gay man who must hide for fear of death, who asked why the angel's faces looked so red...
"They blush to see whose hands the church has fallen into," he reportedly said in response.
Perfect. What do you say about a moment like this in human history? This moment, like so many in the last hundred years, decided largely by the actions of the nation I live in, and when the leadership, as always, has no noticeable regard for human life (except the highly profitable unborn, that is, and the soon-to-be-dead), and the people, as always, are gathering around the crudely drawn stick figures that comprise their faith.
This is why I have a problem with Sufjan Stevens, despite the fact that I can honestly not name anyone who writes better music, these days. It's like embracing Nazi-ism because you like their snappy uniforms, their spare and majestic architecture.
But what do I say about anyone else with this dichotomy? Ya' gotta love the art, not the artist. (Or, as I say even more often, 'Hate Christianity, love the Christian.')
His album "Seven Swans" is a full-blown celebration of the mystery of the soon-to-be-revealed savior. It is fine, spare, banjo-driven music, full of longing of the most beautiful sort, and at least at first, the lyrics could very well be about a lover, rather than the revealed messiah. By the end, it's full blown hymnal for a new age. And it disgusts me. It is sentiments like these that make it easy for the rest of the citizenry of this highly armed and superstitious nation I live in to accept the police state a-growing. 'Unto Caesar...', y'know.
His project to make a celebratory album for each of the fifty states is admirable. I suspect that the professional rock press will have abandoned him for some new, transitory darling by the time he gets to Oregon, if ever. Probably before he hits Nevada or Idaho. That doesn't matter. I haven't heard his album "Greetings From Michigan", but I bet it's wonderful, as almost everything he does is (the album "A Sun Came" is just plain awful).
The album that followed, "Sufjan Stevens Invites You to Come on Feel the Illinoise", is a fucking classic. It's the kind of thing that would have become a musical, not all that long ago.
The first song, "Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois", sets the tone nicely. It starts with echo-ey piano, and goes right into the theme of child-like wonder that pervades the whole album. He also displays his erudition (or pretension, if you please) by referring to said UFO as 'the revenant'.
Like we all noticed at one point or another: based on what early cultures had to say about the gods, they certainly do sound like a bunch of highly advanced beings from space, don't they?
An instrumental follows. It is both majestic and self-parody-ing. Beautiful and large. It is, on further reading, named "The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself In the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're going to have to Leave Now, or, 'I have Fought the Big Knives and will continue to fight them until they are off our lands!'"
Sufjan Stevens likes long song titles. But taking the above with what I know of the guy: I think he's a liberal Christian. The kind I like. He will say, in interviews, that he's a Christian, but he doesn't wanna talk about it. I applaud that, because I think he's trying to say that faith is private, and worse yet, there's already plenty of assholes already making a business out of this.
The next one is a two-parter named "Come on Feel the Illinoise!" The first part called 'The World's Columbian Exposition'. "Oh great intentions/ I've got the best of interventions/but when the ads come/ I think about it now"
Nice word play, and I love the idea that anyone would be delving into the history of a place on a pop record...But that particular line also reminds me that a hell of a lot of his lyrics seem to be about a great deal, without actually saying anything. "If you got patience/ celebrate the ancients". Sure, but...
Along the way, he visits Frank Lloyd Wright, the invention of the Ferris Wheel and Cream of Wheat. It's all good stuff, and seems to be heading toward a statement of some sort regarding how far we should have gone contrasted with how far we actually went: "Oh god of progress/ have you degraded or forgot us?" Even so, the guy still is saying nothing. The music is gorgeous, almost florid.
It flows nicely into the second part, 'Carl Sandburg Visits Me In a Dream'. If you're going to explore Illinois mythology (Lincoln in particular), you're going to need to go back to Sandburg. It's even more in keeping with the classical ode view being put forth here that he would arrive in the form of a visitation from beyond the grave, or a Voice From History, at least. "I was hypnotized, I was asked to improvise/ on the attitude, the regret of a thousand centuries of death".
He's no longer talking about Illinois, or History, at all. He's talking about Where We Stand Right Here, as artists, as Sufjan Stevens...How to say the thing that needs saying, when so many have already said so much. How to not make the same mistakes...
"Even with the heart of terror and the superstitious wearer
I am writing all alone, I am writing all alone
Even in my best condition, counting all the superstition
I am riding all alone, I am running all alone
And we asked the beatitudes of a thousand lines
We were asked, at the attitudes, they reminded us of death
Even with the rest belated, everything is antiquated
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?
Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?"
Perfect. He's writing a new handbook for how to approach this whole I-have-something-to-say thing. Are you acting out of a pure place? Or, as I like to put it, are you operating from ground clear? Intent is everything, y'know.
The next song is about a serial killer from Illinois, "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
I remember hearing about him on the news, as a kid. I didn't understand why anyone would feel like killing so many people, and wondered why the fact that all the dead bodies were naked was such a big deal. I don't recall whether or not they mentioned that he made his living as a clown.
The music is quiet, singer/songwriter-y but claustrophobic, like the Seventies themselves. It's a not-sympathetic-but-realistic treatment: "His father was a drinker/ and his mother cried in bed/ folding John Wayne's t-shirts when the swingset hit his head"
and "the neighbors they adored him/ for his humor and his conversation". Yes. That's what all the neighbors of all serial killers say. But the nightmare hasn't started yet.
"Look underneath the house there/ find the few living things rotting fast/ in their sleep/ oh my god" and on that 'oh my God', his voice breaks into a near-crying falsetto. He follows it quietly by asking, "Were you one of them?"
Now, what does that mean? Is he wondering about some cousin who disappeared one day in 1977 and was never seen again, or is he asking if we all died, or at least some part of us did, when we finally had it brought to our attention that clowns sometimes are psychopaths, and the neighbors may have a trunk freezer in the garage full of the remains of other neighbors?
It goes on like that, alternating cold recitation of fact with poetic flights. At the end, as almost a post-script, Sufjan Stevens intrudes again:
"And on my best behavior, I am really just like him
look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid."
Shiiiiiit. So-assuming that isn't a confession that he's a serial killer himself- he's certainly laying the whole 'we are all sinners, and therefore wounds in the body of Christ' thing on a bit thick, right? Or, is he reminding us all that it's easy to view all the evil inherent in people through the convenient lens of monsters like Gacy, causing the rest of us to blow off the awful shit we do?
The next song, "Jacksonville", is another one where the music is so lush and wonderful, it causes one to sing along without ever knowing the words. This is why so much of his music courses through the sound systems of hip coffee shops and cafes all over: it's really pretty music.
The lyrics though? It's another pseudo-historical exploration, with words that seem to be saying a great deal, but I'm not sure they're about anything really.
He talks a bit about how the actual black people who live in Illinois don't scare him so much, as he knows he's going to heaven (that's a big paraphrase, but it's what he's saying). He throws in something that I think is a reference to Helen Keller, the Dewey Day parade (?)...And here's something: "The spirit's right, and the spirit doesn't change".
I know that the above is one of those reasons people give for being religious. "Here, at least, is something I can be sure of." Well, sure, but doncha see how some of us people (like me) see this whole No Change thing as terrifying, and signifying Atrophy?
Or how acting like things don't change signifies you in my book as being An Idiot, since the nature of life and the universe Is Change? And how having Something up there in the Sky constantly watching actually sounds a great deal like the nightmarish world I already inhabit? And yet I also agree: there are some things that are just True, dammit, and I don't care what anyone else has to say about it. I know.
And this is one of those places where religious people and non-religious people come together. The other one is: we all agree the world has gone to shit.
"Andrew Jackson! All I'm asking/ show us the wheel, and give us the wine/ raise the banner, Jackson hammer!/ everyone goes to the capital line/ Colored Preacher, nice to meetcha!/ the spirit is here, and the spirit is fine."
Et cetera. I guess I get what he's saying, but what he's saying isn't much, by my estimation. Those who built our nation did so by murder and lies. Yes, I noticed. But maybe this astonishingly good looking Christian guy of twenty-three or so can tell people better than I ever would...But what if they have no idea who Andrew Jackson is? Or they get so caught up in the music, they never check the lyric sheet?
It fades out on one of those long piano trills that takes up the entire keyboard, and into a short string thing called "A short Reprise for Mary Todd, who went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons". A Lincoln joke again. Gotcha.
"Decatur" is the song that follows. Sufjan shares vocals with some other guy. This is the most light-hearted song on the album; largely a bunch of Seussian word-play in which all of the last lines of each verse rhyme with 'Decatur'.
Even so, he still can't leave it alone, either with trying to pack too much meaning into a pop song, or saying things that don't mean a damn thing while trying to fool the rest of us that maybe it does...Also, the requisite stops in History:
"The sound of the engines and the smell of the grain
we go riding on the abolition grain train
Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater
but Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator"
See what I mean? Totally fucking cute. But then check the not-makin'-any-sense-at-all next verse:
"Chickenmobile with a rooster tail
I've had my fill, and I know how bad it feels
stay awake and watch for the data
no small caterpillar, go and congratulate her!"
I forgot to mention that the first line is-"our step-mom, we did everything to hate her/ she took us down to the edge of Decatur". So, along with History History, we also get Personal History, which would have been great if the guy had followed up at all with what he was referring to. That doesn't stop the final chorus from being great:
"Denominate her! Go Decatur!
Go Decatur! It's the great I Am
Abominator! Why did we hate her?
Go Decatur! It's the great I Am
Denominate her! Anticipate her!
Go Decatur! It's the great I Am
Appreciate her! Stand up and thank her!" etc.
So, it's a nice sentiment, if you're finally getting around to apologizing to your stepmom (the actual title of the song is "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother"), but why didn't you do a better job of that, minus the half-ass historical references? Or why not do the whole thing more cohesively, unless that's the point: here's what it sounds like inside the head of Sufjan Stevens.
The next song, "Chicago", is beautiful. I'm not gonna get into it here, though. The song we've been heading for this entire time is coming up next.
The guitar starts out quietly, at home. An unusual melody. By now, you're ready for it: if he's putting me at ease like this, something horrific is about to happen.
And it is, but it's not. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is one of the most beautiful songs I know, since it's not just a song about a little girl dying of bone marrow cancer. Indeed: if it were just that, I would be able to say, oh you cheap piece of shit. How dare you make me cry with stupid songs about little girls dying of cancer? What ya' got next? Puppies run over by cars?
No: it's about being in love when you're way too young, and having to deal with unacceptable loss when you're a young Christian, and are compelled to say that it all has a higher purpose.
"In the morning through the window shade
when the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading
All the glory that the Lord has made
and the complications you could do without"
All the little images we remember years later: "with your shirt tucked in, and your shoes untied", for instance. It all adds up to being a complete picture, which you never get in pop music, of a person. Not just My First Love, not just The Dead Chick, not just The Day I Started Questioning God Because I'd Never Had to Deal with Death Before, not just Cheap Tearjerker, but not just Celebration of Someone, either. All the above, in fact.
"All the glory that the Lord has made
and the complications when I see His face
in the morning in the window
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..."
She's a martyr/messiah, too. She is the face of God, or is that a reflection in the window?
And I love that 'he takes and he takes'. Last time Sufjan played New York City, the guy from the Times pointed out that any show by this outfit chiefly concerns 'a God that sometimes seems so distant'...Mr. Stevens is a believer, and I haven't been since I was very young (and only briefly then). I love to listen to the searching aspect, as opposed to the fat, self-satisfied smugness one generally gets out of Christians in the United States.
Above all else, this is the journey all of us are on, regardless of what we're seeking. If it ain't God, it's Art, or Justice, or Knowledge...Or anything we wish for. And to hear anyone finally say it out loud-It may not Actually Be There-is so fucking beautiful.
Rest o' the album's pretty damn great. The song that follows "Casimir Pulaski Day" is one that would make Stereolab proud. That's another one of the strengths of this album: it isn't tied specifically to one musical genre. It can be whatever it wants to be. The rest of the album is beautiful, though I think it shoots its wad on "Casimir".
That song ends with some of the beautiful girl backup singers he always employs doing their tiny, plaintive voice thing. Quietly, so young: feel sad, but then...
It gets louder, and the chorus reminds the musicians that this is also supposed to be a celebration, and it sounds more triumphant, like maybe she's a little lucky to be out of here, and not have to ask all these fucking questions, which then will require answers.
I gotta stop. I promised myself a few weeks ago that I'd do a piece on this album, and now I basically did it. Take it for whatever it might be worth.