please stop tickling me

In which we laugh and laugh and laugh. And love. And drink.

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Location: Portland, Oregon

Otium cum Dignitatae

Friday, February 24, 2006

All the Glory That the Lord Has Made, or, Whose Hands the Church has Fallen Into

I was sitting with Jason the English lately. He was discussing his dislike of a certain act on the scene.
"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!"
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.



Blogger carrier said...

Glad you're around to listen to this stuff so we don't have to.

I guess it's too bad that so many folks eat it up just to get so higher and closer to God.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Erudite Redneck said...

Wow. What a review, dude. I love the idea of "I'm a Christian, but I don't want to talk about it."

Loving Christians but hating (most of what passes for modern) Christianity is also a cool notion, especially as a borrowed and twisted phrase; "Hate the sin, love the sinner. That's why I call myself a Jesusian sometimes. New nonword; no baggage.

Some of the lyrics sound rappy, since they rhyme so overtly. ... The last rap music I cared for was PE's "Fight the Power." ...

Is there some Poe in the writing? Maybe he came to mind because of the hidde-under-the-floorboards reference("Telltale Heart") and the suggestion that Soof Yawn is ethereal in much of his tunage as well as his thinking; I always sense a lingering air of the opiate around Poe's stuff; perhaps young Soof Yawn's faith has been enlightened by certain herbage, as well. Not that that's a bad thing.

Speaking (loosely) of the Lord: I went to a funeral yesterday, at a very establishment-type Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City; outside the sanctuary was a huge oil-on-canvas painting of what looked like an Indian Jesus with a couple of Indian women. Not bad.

7:35 AM  
Blogger disco boy said...

now THATS how you review a record.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Jacq said...

Yea, good review there, RB. Guess I'm the ultimate sinner in that I'm not highly focused on getting "closer to God."

7:05 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Well, and I think it's pretty clear that I'm not heading that way either, but you see what I mean about God as a metaphor for your highest aspirations?
I mean, I had a girlfriend once who wouldn't even go with me on the whole 'God as metaphor' thing: "I can't believe in that shit. I'm a scientist," she said.
But Science was her God, to put it crudely.
And again, the reason I dig this Stevens guy (almost as much as I dig...Cat...Stevens?)is his lack of proselytizing. It's clear who he is and where he's coming from, but frankly I'd call his demographic Midwestern before I'd call it modern Chritian.

10:53 AM  
Blogger carrier said...

To entertain the notion that God exists only as a metaphor would render faith in a literal Supreme Being meaningless.

Likewise to engage in blind faith of a literal Supreme Being it would be impossible to consider that Being nothing more than a metaphor.

So God is either a metaphor representing higher aspiration or a literal Being representing reward for faith in the incomprehensible.

I don't think God can be both, so inspite of cajoling yet evidently strangely pleasing hymns you are probably correct.

Maybe you are better off digging...Cat's stuff. He certainly seems to have settled into his faith of choice and I suppose that is what really matters most.

Or have I completely wandered off the path again?

6:53 PM  
Blogger cats dig me said...

What is...Cat...calling himself these days? I seem to remember it being unpronouncible, or maybe it was incomprehensible. I used to kinda dig him till he went all religious on us. Muslims are damn near crazier than super-con Christians.

I have to sort of go along with carrier on the literal versus metaphorical program. Except that I usually (maybe 4 days per week) believe that God does exist and that all the assorted world cultures and establised religions viewing him/her/it differently have caused most of us to turn God into a metaphor.

Not only is everything you ever heard about anything absolutely true, they are all true simultaneously which is naturally impossible. The Buddhists have a name for that. I just can't remember what it is. Starts with a K...

7:59 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Not entirely. I think there's huge comedic potential in the concept of Being Rewarded for Belief in the Incomprehensible.

8:01 PM  
Blogger carrier said...

Cosmic comedic potential. The problem is we're never going to be sure of whom the joke is on. And if we do find out it will be too late.

8:16 PM  
Blogger cats dig me said...

The other 3 days per week I believe our entire universe is contained in a cheap plastic snow-globe which is being shook 'round by a deranged mental patient who is sitting in a corner of the hospital lounge whacking his pud at the same time. I mean, just look around you, people!!!

8:17 PM  
Blogger cats dig me said...

oops, sorry folks. I think I was channelling the Monk for a second there.

8:19 PM  
Blogger cats dig me said...

Oh, I think its called koan, KO-ann? An unsolveable problem which, of course, has no solution. Then they tell you that really it does have a solution even though it cannot. Jesus I hate that "snatch the pebble" shit sometimes.

8:33 PM  
Blogger carrier said...

I would hate that pebble in the snatch thing too. How irritating would that be?

Carrier1 say:

There is no compromise between what is and what is not; if you never decide between the two you will reach the end without ever having come to a conclusion.

8:43 PM  
Blogger cats dig me said...

Duality sucks. Are we physical beings attempting to have spiitual experiences, perhaps just making shit up as we go to make ourselves feel better about the shit hole world we live in? Or are we spiritual beings having a physical experience to learn all those wonderful lessons and the shit hole planet is but a class room? I'm going with the latter 'cause it makes me feel good. If I'm wrong - oh well, I'll never know.

Choosing the path can be harder than walking the path. Believe or don't believe, either way you'll be okay in the end. Its that damn indecision that destroys the soul, isn't it? Yeh, duality sucks alright.

8:58 PM  
Blogger carrier said...

Relax and just enjoy the music Bachelor enjoyed. Didn't enjoy? I wasn't sure if you liked it or not.

The music part and not the lyrics?

I've always been a big fan of Ira Gershwin but never thought much of George?

Or that Robert Zimmerman is good, but he's no Bob Dylan?

10:05 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Oh no; I liked it just fine, and that's what the problem is.
Except, of course, there is no problem with that in any sense, whatsoever. It is really pretty music, as I said, and it's just a little weird to hear it coming out of so many speakers in so many coffee shops and cafes in P.O., since you can pretty much assume that no one is paying attention to the lyrics...
Which may or may not, in itself, be a problem.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Jacq said...

Man, I hate to make a point. You all are on a roll!

6:05 AM  
Blogger carrier said...

From your review I came away thinking that you liked the music...but necessarily the message within.

There may be more than just one metaphor in there.

6:47 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

C'mon Jacq: make points.

10:14 AM  
Blogger George said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:01 AM  
Blogger George said...

Oh, for heaven's sake, you all, this is great! I was so geeked by the post and the comments that I wrote a pretty long response, but it got a little too long for a comment, so I put it in my own blog, Skookumchuck notebook. I can't seem to get html tags to work as I'd like, but here is the address.

Please go check it out as I quote several of you and would love to hear your responses.

11:07 AM  
Blogger BitchSlap The Monkey said...

I'll take a stab at decyphering the lyrics:

"Chickenmobile with a rooster tail

Mascot for Krekel's Kustard

I've had my fill, and I know how bad it feels

Possibly refering to Krekel's filling menu options?

stay awake and watch for the data

Maybe referring to Decatur's rapid increase and decrease in population or it's title as theSoybean Capitol

no small caterpillar, go and congratulate her!"

Caterpillar (the heavy machinery manufacturers) have been in Decatur for over 50 years

12:30 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Finally; Some real answers to my questions.

2:18 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

And it's great to see George aboard on this one. I was waiting for it, as he does this sort of stuff for a living, and I strongly recommend that everyone go check out the Skookumchuck memoirs.

4:06 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

But what we really need here now is a Tegan and Sara record review. Anyone?

6:09 PM  
Blogger cats dig me said...

I still need to know what time warped record store you're hangin' in. The closest thing we have here is Bach 'n Rock II and I find that place too pretentious. I can't even find decent music online now that Kazaa went legit. Guess Lars will get his solid gold shark tank pool bar after all.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Jacq said...

Let's hear an audio clip...BOOYA

7:43 AM  
Blogger BitchSlap The Monkey said...

Rich Bachelor, I accept your challenge! Find my response on the newly formulated BLOG Q&A

1:06 PM  
Blogger carrier said...

You were right all along. Don't discuss politics with people you don't know. Especially if they are complete 'jackasses' granny got such a kick out of saying.

It always made me smile.

9:54 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Why? Have you gotten yourself into it with some of those eejiots elsewhere on the web?
Who are they? I wanna go look.
Everybody already checked the Blog Q&A?

10:45 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Surprise surprise. This guy:
Are you still trying to reason with these robots?
For those who don't feel like reading the whole damn thing, my brother's main problem was that he failed to agree with the gracious host over there, in a previous post. Then he was reminded that when liberals dissent, it is demagoguery...Etc. etc.

1:38 PM  
Blogger carrier said...

Yeah but I can't help myself. I need to do some right-wing-ding-a-ling rehab I guess. The thought that those knuckleheads are out there spreading such nonsense!

Someone is using some brain work over there at Q&A. I don't even know who it is being reviewed and broke down, but the review stands alone as a great read.


4:48 PM  

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