‘It’s a long life’: On Sufjan Stevens, finding joy in sorrow

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Joe Lencioni / Wikimedia/Creative Commons

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As the haunting melody of “Visions of Gideon” played over the final shot of “Call Me By Your Name,” it was undeniable that much of the scene’s power was provided by the accompanying track. Sufjan Stevens, who wrote and performed a number of original songs for the film’s soundtrack, including the aforementioned track, will be attending and performing at Sunday’s 90th Academy Awards Ceremony.

Stevens was nominated for Best Original Song for “Mystery of Love,” also prominently featured in director Luca Guadagnino’s film. The song explores the ecstasies and sorrows of first love, with lyrics that began in consummation and end in solitude. Stevens is no stranger to the film’s bittersweet portrayal of love and loss. His music has always been, at its heart, an account of joy defined by sorrow.

With nine albums (including two massive Christmas albums), an EP, various singles and collaborations (including the recent Planetarium), as well as live albums and mixtapes — it’s hard for new fans to know where to begin. So, throw on this playlist and check out some highlights below.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” is a perfect introduction to all things Sufjan Stevens. It includes a ridiculously long and strange title, tender lyrics and nostalgic memories of summer camp.

“The Predatory Wasp” does all of what the tracks in “Call Me By Your Name” do, but it does it better.

Stevens’ live performance of the song years ago at Austin City Limits provides a glimpse into a much younger artist. The wings he and his band wore on stage were much simpler than later versions of the costume. Stevens also employed a full band with strings and brass in addition to guitar and keys.

This song prompts one of Stevens’ songs’ characteristic and iconic backstories. His tales famously weave fantasy and reality to a point that it doesn’t ultimately matter what did or did not actually happen because the whole thing still conveys emotional truths.

For an artist who understands and embraces vulnerability in such an unprecedented, refreshing way, “The Predatory Wasp” stands out among his work. “Touching his back with my hand, I kiss him” Stevens admits. This love remains unspecified, maybe, but not undefined. “He ran away. I can tell you, I love him each day.” Stevens could tell us, but as we know “the telling gets old” — we don’t really need to hear it anyway, because we understand already.

“Chicago”

“Chicago” captures that bittersweet longing that comes with leaving a place, moving on and starting over. It is one of Stevens’ more accessible songs — in other words, it falls on the less eclectic end of the spectrum. The track features on his album Illinois, a remnant of a since-abandoned plan to do an album for each of the 50 states.

“Chicago” is unapologetically joyful. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Stevens sings before reminding us that all things go and all things grow. Remaking yourself and moving on is a scary thing to do, but that means doing it is incredibly brave. This is the song for those moments when you’re driving away but can’t help sneaking a glance in the rearview mirror.

“To Be Alone With You”

Is it gay or about God? It’s a question that one could reasonably ask about any number of Stevens’ songs. “To Be Alone With You” certainly falls in this category: It includes a desire for a greater level of intimacy with the song’s subject, the explicit use of male pronouns and ambiguous religious allusions.

And it’s true that this track specifically comes from what is arguably Stevens’ most explicitly religious album. The album is rife with Christian imagery. It tells of visions of the Apocalypse and the transfiguration featured in the New Testament, with one track simply titled “Abraham.” The whole album manages to capture the ominous, unsettling feelings inherent to much of Christian theology.

Most of the songs on the album are built around the simple sounds of Stevens’ voice and banjo. The titular track “Seven Swans” is a beautiful, haunting melody — and it is not uncommon for live performances of it to feature Stevens smashing banjos while bedecked in wings worthy of a Victoria’s Secret runway.

“Impossible Soul”

“Impossible Soul” is a 25-minute tour de force that showcases every staple of Stevens’ songwriting. The electric frenzy of the track is only a vehicle for a deeply vulnerable confession. Roughly split into five parts, each section of the song varies in sound and tone. Parallels are littered throughout the lyrics.

Stevens parries lines like “Boy, we can do much more together” / “Boy, we made such a mess together,” “I don’t want to feel pain” / “I never meant to cause you pain” and “In the wrong life, everything is chance” / “In the right life, it’s a miracle.” These contradicting parallels highlight the impossibility the song focuses on, demonstrating that nothing’s more contradictory than the soul, especially when it’s in love.

“Casimir Pulaski Day”

“It wouldn’t be a Sufjan Stevens show without death,” the musician rightfully notes in a live performance of this song — and it wouldn’t be a Sufjan Stevens song without complicated feelings about God, specifically with the Christian understanding of the divine.

In “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Stevens manages to capture the specific feeling of futility one encounters when faced with loss. Sometimes you pray, “but nothing ever happens.” Sometimes no divine healing comes, despite all the stories that profess the possibility. Stevens’ songwriting is no stranger to the senselessness of death. In the small, quiet voice that intrinsically characterizes Stevens’ style, he recounts the tragedy of losing someone you love. Some days God just takes and takes, and we’re left with no explanation, crying on the floor of the bathroom.

The Only Thing

“I want to save you from your sorrow,” Stevens confesses — in the way only someone who has descended into the absolute depths of sadness can. In the album “Carrie & Lowell,” Stevens writes about the death of his mother Carrie. Sufjan’s mother often appears in his music, but this album reveals a newfound grief, one that feels almost too private to witness.

Loss is an all-consuming thing — it infects every memory, everything. “Do I care if I survive this?” Stevens asks himself. The whole track alternates between asking and answering that question. And whether or not he cares, he does survive. He continues because of the night sky, because of signs and wonders, because of sea lion caves in the dark, because it is the only thing to do.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].