Sufjan Stevens’ music is stuffed with birds. Swans, hawks, doves, loons and different avian witnesses to human toil and battle. Like Stevens, birds can take an extended view of their environment hovering miles above it, untroubled by the granular particulars. But additionally, like him, they largely select to be part of it, poking round within the soil for sustenance and substance. You may scratch your head and marvel at why pigeons hop throughout the road as an alternative of flying over it or you may be pleased about the sight.
I feel that’s why Stevens has been such a helpful a part of this self-isolation season. COVID-19 has, like nothing else since World Warfare II, given everybody on our planet one, single, terrifying context. Each single dwelling individual you could have ever met goes via some model of the identical factor. That’s the chook’s eye view. However extra instantly, the main points of our particular person lives have been upended. The locations we stroll. The individuals we kiss. The meals we make. These are the trivialities. The little issues, all of the sudden torn asunder.
Stevens is presented at not simply seamlessly floating from the macro to the micro however exploring the connection between the 2. His Illinois tribute album Come On! Really feel the Illinoise!is legendary for unwieldy tune titles like “Decatur, or, a Round of Applause for Your Step-Mother!”, however there’s an vital level to this muddle. The city of Decatur and Sufjan’s stepmother existed in relationship with one another. The macro and the micro.
For this reason Steven’s music is sweet teaching on understanding the methods your private wellbeing is linked to the frequent good. That’s at all times been true; it’s simply extra apparent now. However there’s another excuse Steven’s music has been such an vital balm for me the previous couple of weeks: its remedy of dying.
I used to be in school when Stevens first alighted on the then-burgeoning indie music scene, along with his 50 State Mission and everything-and-the-kitchen-sink strategy to recording. Refreshingly, for that point, he didn’t appear to take himself too significantly till he, all of the sudden, devastatingly would. He predated the trendy web’s knack of claiming vital issues with foolish aesthetics. I used to be dwelling in Chicago when Illinoisegot here out and I cherished it dearly, as any younger, music-loving Chicago resident would. I didn’t know I, a Christian, was allowed to publicly admit that generally praying means “nothing ever happens” till Sufjan sang about it on “Casimir Pulaski Day.”
I used to be youthful then and stored dying in my peripherals like most of my buddies did, however Stevens has at all times been way more comfy with the grim specter over his shoulder. That was clear then however turned way more obvious on 2015’s Carrie & Lowell,the place dying turned the primary participant following the lack of his mom. The album’s sparse instrumentation fits its unhappy topic, with achingly fairly melodies about dying, melancholy and, finally, acceptance. “Every road leads to an end,” Stevens sings on “Death With Dignity” simply considered one of many strains that may float by on a dozen listens earlier than it catches you in your guts. Notably now.
In America, we’re consultants at sanitizing dying into a chilly calculation a distant, sterile finale unsuitable for well mannered dialog or any dialog in any respect outdoors of closed-off hospital rooms. However in Stevens’ music, dying is the unavoidable context of our lives. “Make the most of your life while it is rife, while it is light,” he expenses on “The Fourth of July” earlier than slipping into the tune’s repeated chorus one easy, immutable truth: “We’re all gonna die.” In his telling, that is neither morbid nor fatalistic. It’s a truth to develop comfy with now, when you nonetheless can.
Stevens’ perspective rings more true now, with all our efforts to maintain dying at bay failing in spectacular trend. On this unusual season, dying is lurking in all places a neighbor’s handshake, a doorknob, church. Paranoia and panic are apparent responses. However Stevens fashions a extra human and vital posture: “All things go.”
That’s why Stevens’ music has been each a consolation and a problem. Comforting, as a result of his music appears so comfy with our current actuality. Difficult, as a result of that is the one sane approach to consider dying, actually. “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me from fossils that follow my head,” he sings on “John My Beloved.” “There’s only a shadow of me, in a matter of speaking: I’m dead.” If this season doesn’t get that into my cranium, nothing will.
When will issues return to regular? I do know what individuals imply after they ask that, however the actuality is that there will probably be no going again to regular. The pandemic has raised huge questions concerning the fragility of our lives on the macro and micro ranges the fragile, life-and-death methods we’re all linked to one another by way of a labyrinth of native companies, healthcare methods, trusted (and never so trusted) information sources and minimal wage staff, in addition to smaller issues like hugs, live shows and eating places. Disgrace on us if we refuse to re-evaluate our attitudes and actions about this stuff post-quarantine.
However likewise, it’s vital to not let this collective familiarity with dying go to waste and make the most of the distinctive knowledge that’s, for a time, looming over us like a shadow. “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth,” Joshua stated in his pretty farewell handle to Israel. “You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”
Stevens strikes the same angle about dying, welcoming it neither as a buddy nor fearing it as an enemy however accepting its inevitability and drawing logical conclusions about what which means for his life. “Lord,” he sings on “My Blue Bucket of Gold”, “touch me with lightning.” Is that this a name for dying or sanctification? Within the Bible’s view, they aren’t at all times so completely different. As 2 Corinthians 5 says: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
That’s not simple to recollect. However throughout my time in quarantine, Sufjan Stevens’ music has helped, a little bit, to each soar over a number of the mess but additionally poke round within the messes of it and discover “the only reason why I continue at all …blind faith, God’s grace.”