Sufjan Stevens, You’re Pathetic

Let me first admit that before I had listened to a precious moment of Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell, I already had a feeling that I was going to write a negative review. I saw the album cover art and I knew what was coming. Icy nostalgia. Remember that opening sequence from the Wonder Years? Well, add in some Schindler’s List somehow accompanied by the drone of a wall-mounted air-conditioning unit from your long dead great aunt.

And, of course, I was going to love it. I fancy myself an artist, write a little music, I’m white and sometimes accused of being a hipster–of course I’m going to love it. (Is that racist?) Sufjan Stevens is pathetic and so am I.

[By all means, stream the album while you can from NPR for free while you read on. Click here.]

But my main criticism is aimed at the over-the-top praise coming from major publications/sites like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and NPR. Here’s what some guy wrote for The Guardian describing the album some 8 hours ago,

His new album, Carrie & Lowell, a return to [his] narrative songwriting, is a fall-down gorgeous and emotionally devastating masterpiece prompted by the death of his mother, Carrie, in 2012 (and looking back on his strained relationship with his father and step-mother). It features some of the most beautiful music ever made about loss, and some of the most direct explorations of death ever recorded. It is a brutal, extremely sad, relentlessly wrenching record that, because it’s so exquisitely crafted, you might keep on a loop for days.

I get it, those of us with some emotional intelligence are starved for some thoughtful and poetic music, but for crying out loud, “Some of the most beautiful music ever made about loss?” Seriously? Okay, in fairness that description would probably disgust Mr. Sufjan as much as it should us. Anyone who does agree with that sentence probably doesn’t know very many songs.

What am I trying to say here? How can I admit that I love this music and dislike the album?

Certainly, part of what raises red flags for me is the fawning of the chattering NPR-listening class and the many breathless reviews, like the one above by Dave Egger–ostensibly a serious writer.

This is a thirty-nine year old man (he’ll be 40 in 4 months) writing music that sounds like the murmurings of a seventeen-year old sulking on his bed.

Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated

– All of Me Wants All of You (Sufjan Stevens/Carrie & Lowell)

I’ll put it this way. To hold up an album of breathy, angst-ridden songs retracing awkward feelings about one’s parents as a pivotal achievement in English songwriting is a bad omen for the future of art in Western culture. (Not to mention this run-on sentence.)

Art, culture, design and seemingly life itself is stuck if not dead.

An article in Vanity Fair by Kurt Andersen nailed this point a few years ago,

Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it.

The same holds true for music, literature and architecture. The only thing that has aged this article and accompanying image is a slight resurgence of beards in the last two years.

So what are we to do? What should Sufjan do? Alas, Je suis Sufjan…

[I shouldn’t do this, but now that I’ve gotten mostly negative responses, I’m going to intervene here rather than edit the post—that wouldn’t be fair to the commenters. After this point I start quoting from Herman Melville, rambling about Bob Dylan and quoting Jesus. I knew it was getting too late when I started to quote E.E. Cummings! Yes, this is a rambling mess, but I do stand by the main point being a criticism of the over-the-top praise coming from major publications.]

I’m not entirely sure…But we can look back at what other thirty-nine year olds did. When Bob Dylan was 39, he had just put out the album “Saved,” upsetting his fans by essentially putting out a Christian sermon set to gospel-infused rock and roll.

And here’s Herman Melville at a robust 32. I like to think of this as the quiet climax of the book. A contemplation of stillness–You see, I don’t object to Sufjan’s subject matter–as the whalers wait spans of sixty or seventy minutes for a group of whales to surface. Trust me and dive in for this lengthy quote. Forgive me, I know, it’s almost the entire chapter!

At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.

These are the times, when in his whale-boat the rover softly feels a certain filial, confident, land-like feeling towards the sea; that he regards it as so much flowery earth; and the distant ship revealing only the tops of her masts, seems struggling forward, not though high rolling waves, but through the tall grass of a rolling prairie: as when the western emigrants’ horses only show their erected ears, while their hidden bodies widely wade through the amazing verdure. The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.

Nor did such soothing scenes, however temporary, fail of at least as temporary an effect on Ahab. But if these secret golden keys did seem to open in him his own secret golden treasuries, yet did his breath upon them prove but tarnishing.

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye, – though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life, – in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: – through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? in what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

And that same day, too, gazing far down from his boat’s side into that same golden sea, Starbuck lowly murmured: –

“Loveliness unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride’s eye! – Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”

And Stubb, fish-like, with sparkling scales, leaped up in that same golden light: –

“I am Stubb, and Stubb has his history; but here Stubb takes oaths that he has always been jolly!”

Are you jolly, Mr. Sufjan?

You do claim to be a Christian. And I’m grateful for it. The word “God” was even still capitalized on the lyric sheet I was handed at the listening party I attended–bold stuff.

Another thirty-odd year old said,

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. – Matthew 16:24-27

Another gem,

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:26 #DifficultJesus

What do you say, Sufjan? Let’s tear this place up!

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