Sufjan

I have an email from a friend that is long overdue a reply. I’ve been sitting on it for months at this point. And now I’m writing about it in a blog post before I’m actually going to reply. How embarrassing. Mainly, the reason I haven’t replied is that, like most of my social obligations lately, I only seem capable of remembering about it at times when I can’t act upon it (mainly in the middle of the night). But the other reason is that, in the email, he made a perfectly fair criticism of Sufjan Stevens in the context of our conversation – basically along the lines of his music isn’t that sad – and the one time I did remember at an opportune moment, I looked at that criticism and, in trying to form a response, was so flooded with Sufjan fangirl feels that I couldn’t cope with it and had to go away.

Now, prone to fangirling as I am, I am a person who, when a completely different friend said he felt disappointed with the outro of a Tame Impala song, emphatically retorted, without missing a beat, ‘yeah but that’s how he wants you to feel!’

…Oh really, Yve? Have you discussed this specifically with Kevin Parker, have you? Did you have a nice little one-on-one zoom chat about the minutiae of his musical intentions?

I probably get a bit carried away defending the artists I have chosen to deify as sublime vessels of Universal consciousness. Maybe take it a little bit too personally. So I’m going to catch myelf and not send my friend a long-winded essay on the virtues of Sufjan Stevens. No, apparently I’m going to gush about him on my blog, instead.

This is gonna be a niche read.

There are some Sufjan songs that provide instant, easy access but, for the most part, he demands labour. Which is why, with little spare bandwidth and precious few hours to devote, I had failed to enter the sanctum of his album The Ascension back when it was released in September 2020. What I did do was immediately wrap myself in one single song – Video Game – on a sort of infinite loop. It became my mantra and my armour. A sonic touchstone, orienting me through challenging territory. I listened to the rest of the album a few times, but I could tell it wasn’t reaching me, because it didn’t yet sound like a thing of revelatory beauty. And I for sure had more faith in Sufjan’s ability to deliver that than my own ability to receive it.

Then, the other day, while I was driving to pick my son up, I remembered the forgotten email. So, I decided, not to set up some kind of reminder to email later, but instead to listen to The Ascension. And, heading over the Newcastle Swing Bridge, five songs in, I thought fuck, I want to live in this. Not the bridge, although I do find it charming; The Ascension.

A few trips later, The Ascension now the infinite loop, I realised this was the Sufjan album I’d been waiting for.

I am a Sufjan fangirl for many reasons. His voice is my ASMR. He embodies himself in such a way that he’s fundamentally inspiring to me in his very existence. He’s just kind of brilliant. But also, he is a person who has surely peered into The Abyss. And he didn’t run from it, and he didn’t let its vast horror break him, he just stood his ground, seeing it. At least, that’s my perception. And in his songs, I hear the strength of that, but there’s also always been a fragility. The limitation of trauma, perhaps. Self-aware ego. An admission that he can’t go all the way to where he wants to go. In The Ascension, he goes. Somewhere, at least. Maybe not that place, or maybe not all the way, I don’t know, it’s audacious of me to even speculate this much, but in the right direction. It’s not that everything’s good, or that he’s safe, or that he’s saved, but there’s a subtle shift of that last remnant of fragility to something else. Perhaps to deliberate vulnerability. Which, paradoxically, makes that part of him invulnerable.

There’s a certainty on the album; a directness; a willingness to talk about one single thing and let it be known. Where in the past he defied boundaries and deftly, stubbornly represented a multidimensional view of everything he touched upon, in an almost evasive way, here he is comfortable communicating ‘this is what it is’. And there is something more transcendent about that for me. Like his humanity integrated with his divinity. Like he fucking ascended, I guess. There’s power in it, more than there was in his music before. But he hasn’t sacrificed any of the parts that made his music beautiful to me before.

Plus, there are straight up love songs here. Like, I’d say To Be Alone With You from Seven Swans is a straight up love song, but we can be fairly confident that it is, at least partially, specifically about Jesus, and I like that it’s about Jesus, but, I don’t know, it creates a sort of tangential feel. Futile Devices from Age of Adz is a straight up love song, but the fragility of it is excruciating; the love so acutely felt yet so self-denyingly understated it’s nearly unbearable. I have been waiting a long time to instead hear Sufjan Stevens sing “come run away with with me…and I will show you rapture“. You’re damn fucking straight you will, Sufjan, own that shit you magnificent Christmas Unicorn. And after traversing the desolate abyss I was so sure he had peered into on Tell Me You Love Me, the exaltation of hearing ‘I’m gonna love you anyway’ is everything I ever wanted in my life. And yes, I do mean I want someone to say exactly that to me. And yes, I do mean I want Sufjan to say exactly that to somebody. And yes, I do mean just the sound of it was exactly what I wanted.

I read some reviews of The Ascension while I was writing this, because music is inextricably tied to my most crippling insecurities, and I instinctively believe I have no right to comment on or participate in it, despite it being such an important, enduring part of my life. So I was seeking validation for my point of view. And I started panicking a bit, to be fair, that I was hearing stuff that isn’t there. Because no-one’s talking about love songs; they seem instead to be focussed on the pessimism; the anger; the politics. And even Sufjan himself, in interviews, was alluding mostly to that. And there I am, saying I want to fucking live in it! But then, at the very end of the last article I was permitting myself to read, I found him say

“Maybe the one takeaway is love as a light at the end of the tunnel, because I’m using a lot of those expressions of love as a point of reference. We’re all in this together, sure. But we all just want love, and to be loved, and we should all just love one another. If we can just focus on that, at the very least, maybe that’s a start.”

sufjan stevens

And so, I think I can be comfortable that at least part of his intention was to convey what I so keenly felt upon hearing The Ascension, and perhaps what I have so keenly been longing to hear. That, even as the world around us descends, as it has been for so long, and as we face the barren blackness of The Abyss; the more we choose to ascend through Love, the more beautiful, more powerful, more actualised we become.

Rather than exploring love in its many boundless forms as a subject, a study, or even a confession, on The Ascension it becomes a goal or destination. An aspiration. No. A commitment. And that’s what I’ve been waiting for. I don’t know why, exactly; I just want to hear people commit to Love. People who have some understanding of what Love truly is. People who know the risk, and see the peril, and Love anyway. I never doubted that Sufjan loved, but that’s exactly why I’ve been waiting to hear him say it like this.

So, maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’ve completely missed the point, or muddied it beyond recognition with my own biases. Maybe this is a sign I’m starved of Love in my everyday life. Or, at least, starved of a certain kind of Love. Maybe this is really fucking boring to read. But maybe my view is valid regardless of whether any of that is true. So maybe I should just post it anyway.

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