Sufjan Stevens

Pitchfork Top Fifty Albums 2015: Number 6


The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere

Who do you miss the most of all the ones you have lost?  Call them to your mind’s eye now.

Closest to me in death are my Gran and my friend Matt.  Next is my father.  After that the ghosts of memory do not cause me the deeper pangs that these three do.  Each one was different in their going, but it seems to make no difference whether the death was expected, sudden, welcomed in the end, or bitterly fought, for each one hurts.  In the impossible vastness of time and space there are a handful of people I will ever know and love and to be robbed of them, inexorably robbed of all of them, and even in the end of myself, seems cruel, in the way that indifference is cruel, in the way it fails to acknowledge all feeling.

Each loss is different for me.  When Gran died it was the death of a place and a time as well as her.  It was the end of visiting Mosgiel, and the person who shared the days and weeks of my holidays as a kid.  My father’s death played as a barely heard bass note throughout my early life until I became a father myself and I suddenly noticed his absence more and more.  Matt’s case is entirely different.  I resent it the most.  With him I resent the passing of each year, each year that takes me further and further away from him and what we both knew.  Now I need to go on alone and I would rather not.  Where are my companions?  Who can I tell the old stories with: the stories that you tell together, like a duet, two lines of a melody where you know each others’ moves ahead.  Those stories.

Carrie and Lowell is an incredibly beautiful album about the musician’s relationship with his mother before and after her death, and his relationship with himself.  I’ve never listened to a Sufjan Stevens’ album before, and when I heard this it didn’t initially make much impression.  It is hushed.  When I read the lyrics though the album opened up to me.

Fourth of July begins and ends at his mother’s death bed,

The evil it spread like a fever ahead
It was night when you died, my firefly
What could I have said to raise you from the dead?
Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?

It is a song full of images of darkness and fleeting glimpses of light: fireflies and fireworks.

I can’t get over this album.  It moves me so much.  By the time it comes to its end, which is just a kind of cycling, sad noise, I feel like crying.  Then I put it on again.

Who doesn’t understand the feeling of the songs on this album?  Should Have Known Better wishes things had been said, or done differently before death came.

The last time I saw Matt I didn’t share a drink with him.  I was angry with myself about drinking and wanting to start something new and not wanting to compromise.  What was the use of that?  Not drinking a last time with a friend?  When I saw my Gran the last time I didn’t go back and see her again though we stood in the street afterwards and Cathy asked me if we should.  I was overwhelmed.  I couldn’t grasp the street I was standing on in Mosgiel, and the woman who had just so fiercely hugged me from her bed, and the landscape of shops, and footpaths and carparks that my Gran and I had once walked through thirty years ago.

Should Have Known Better does offer a little smidgen of hope.

Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing
The breakers in the bar, the neighbor’s greeting
My brother had a daughter
The beauty that she brings, illumination

Should I presume to hope then that my life was – in part – worth living because it gave my father moments of great happiness among the great unhappiness of cancer, and the drugs, and the readying himself for death?

Is that what it is?  As my daughters and my wife offer illumination  to me in my life, I have in turn offered points of light to others?  Perhaps Matt remembered the night we were in Taupo, in the outdoor hot pools at De Bretts, and the night sky was blacker for all its brilliantly bright stars.  It’s a light to me, a vivid memory among all the others that are forgotten and become the night sky.  Perhaps it was a light to him, or some other time we shared, and I have forgotten.

Humbling to think so, and a possible way out of death’s ignominy and enervating grip; that we offer each other light in the form of shared moments.  It doesn’t end the loneliness – night’s canopy – but it does remind this melancholic to notice the stars too.  Light and dark play through this album, and in some ways the depth of the darkness puts the light in greater relief.  Like I hope these songs were relief for Sufjan Stevens.

I like to think there is a great possibility for solace in music, and I wish it for him.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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