Just Like Heaven

Are Sufjan Stevens's love songs guided by a higher power? God only knows.

One of the best-kept secrets of the city is the fact that any soul can wander into a house of worship at any time of the day--or, in some cases, night--and find peace and quiet. Oh, there might be a janitor or some other cleric milling about, mopping up or lighting candles, but for the most part you're on your own. Free to wander the aisles and altars with no one preaching at you, no one giving you their version of goodness, no one judging you. Just you, your god, and all those beautiful icons.

All the angels and saints. All the stained glass, sculptures, and engravings. All that passion, life, death, and mystery. All that meditative solitude, which, when you're in the hushed throes of it, brings to mind something that poet and prince of darkness Alistair Crowley said: "To read a newspaper is to refrain from something worthwhile. The first discipline of education must therefore be to refuse resolutely to feed the mind with canned chatter."

Just call him angel of the morning: Sufjan Stevens (center) and friends
Denny Renshaw
Just call him angel of the morning: Sufjan Stevens (center) and friends

There has been much canned chatter about "god" this year. There has been much my-god-is-better-than-your-god killing this year. There has also been Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre), the fourth record from Brooklyn-by-way-of-Michigan songwriter and self-confessed Christian Sufjan Stevens. "Self-confessed" because in this day and rage, to admit to any sort of relationship with Christ is, at best, to admit a need for a crutch, and at worst, an anti-intellectual penchant for Republicanism. But while the rest of the world hollers from its bully pulpits and soap boxes about spirituality, Stevens curls up in the back pew with his banjo and acoustic guitar, singing Depression era-singed folk songs that sound more like whispered mash notes than evangelism.

Seven Swans, then, is hardly the work of some What Would Jesus Do simpleton; its intent is to communicate with the universe and the self, not to celebrate dogma. And as a result, there is a furious kindness at its core, and a deep love--which is a much different animal than love's more maligned cousin "faith"--and so the songs are more like "Song of Bernadette" (Leonard Cohen), "In the Sun" (Joseph Arthur), or "Mother of God" (Patty Griffin) than "Christ in You" (Mike Scott), "Jesus Was Way Cool" (King Missile), or "I Saw The Light" (Hank Williams). That is, Stevens isn't obvious or didactic about his inspiration, nor is he name-dropping or appropriating religious imagery simply for artistic weight or effect.

What he does throughout these 12 songs, including the soaring instrumentals, is give the real sense that he is singing straight to Jesus, and vice versa. But if you hadn't read this, or his recent Pitchfork interview, you might not gather as much. To be sure, most of the tracks could be love letters, and who's to say they're not--it's obvious that J.C. and S.S. got a groovy thing going. "What if I told you I was in love with this?" sings Stevens, softly daring a skeptic to challenge the "controversial" subject of his love. "I can see a lot of life in you," he croons, reminding him of the life that burns within, while simultaneously recognizing the potential for everlasting love in another. "He will take you if you run, he will chase you," he promises, and lo, the singer and song chases you, the listener, down like a one-if-by-land-two-if-by-sea lover or brother coming to save you from yourself and your own earthbound despondence.

In that sense, Seven Swans is a manifestation of the sweetest spiritual relationship there can be: an ongoing dialogue with that certain someone, seen or unseen, named or unnamed, to whom you can whisper every secret, every bit of sainthood or sin, and the someone responds only with the unconditional refrain of, "I love you. I love you. I love you. Forever and a day, amen."

Desperate-times-require-desperate-delusions hooey? Whatever. To be sure, religion circa 2004 is the opiate of the masses in a way it never has been before, but Stevens pares his god-love down to such an intimate exhale, all the bullshit that Christ has been sheathed in melts away and morphs into a sacred silence. And if you're lucky, when you're alone with all that stillness in that empty house of worship, you might stumble upon an organ player or chamber orchestra practicing.

In that moment, the ritual of the mass is yours and yours alone, and you find yourself bathed in heavenly crescendos, echoing miracles, and ancient majesty. And damned if within the Sunday silences you won't hear the ghost of Sufjan Stevens crooning, to you/him/god/lover, his new-world hymns.

 
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