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From the Barbaric Heart: Sufjan Stevens’ Vengeful Play

I was listening to Sufjan Stevens’ song “I Walked” on his new album The Age of Adz when it occurred to me how much in keeping his work is with the project of Romanticism. Like the Romantics, Sufjan is alienated from the values of the culture into which he happened to be born. He is so alienated from it that it doesn’t occur to him to “rebel;” rather, it is as if he has simply never heard of that culture. He says, “America? Christianity? Sorry, I’m from Adz. Things are arranged differently there.” This is the Romantic strategy par excellence: not a confrontation but a purposeful wandering away from the oppressive reason for alienation. Like William Blake, Sufjan creates his own religion in order not to be condemned to another’s. As the song announces, “he walked.”  He’s “down the road a piece.”

In this, Sufjan is both thoughtfully naive and innocently knowing. His work rests not only with Blake but with other straight-faced art-mystics who articulated their revolution with gorgeous nonsense. Nina Hagen’s Nun-Sex-Monk-Rock (the Antiworld of Cosma Shiva), Sun Ra’s Arkestra and their “Gods of the Thunder Realm,” Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love (“Just ask the Axis, he knows everything”), Piet Mondrian’s theosophical paintings (“Passion Flower,” “Devotion”), William Butler Yeats’ A Vision (The Subdivisions of the Wheel: Will, Mask, Creative Mind, Body of Fate), Blake’s Urizen, Los, and Orc, Jacob Boehme’s De Signatura Rerum (“if he has the Hammer that can strike my Bell!”), John’s “Book of Revelation” (the Seventh Seal, the Wrath of the Lamb), the salvific Arcanum of the Gnostics, Plotinus’ emanation of the Nous and World Soul, and, finally, Plato, nonsensical origin of all these blessedly daft spheres.

These are the folk what begat the folk what begat Sufjan.

But what draws me inside Sufjan’s music is not its iconoclastic teaching but its harmonics. (For nature mystics, all of the elaborate systems of Gnosis can be reduced to the right vibration or wavelength, the ringing of a bell.) The song “I Walked” is accompanied by an icy pure chorus of female voices. This music is anything but avant garde or even avant pop; it is an appeal back to the spiritual music that was once the Church’s proudest ornament: Palestrina or Bach or Handel. Like them, the voices on Adz restore faith’s “abstract purity” (Shelley). Disabused of the world’s wisdom by the world itself, Sufjan creates his own world and “redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.” (“A Defense of Poetry”)  Like Shelley, Sufjan seeks to speak the divine through the artwork and thus preserve it not as catechism or credo but as something that could be lived, certainly lived for the duration of the work itself, but also lived after as a kind of light blue wash over our lives, art’s promise of happiness. Against such an experience, the world-as-it-happens-to-be looks poorish.  We experience the real world as disenchantment. Art longs for a counter-world, be it a house full of English poets in Geneva in 1816 (parsing the numinous and telling each other ghost stories about the monsters science makes), or an enclave of refuse-niks, playing guitar, reading Walt Whitman, cranking Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut,” and in most other ways thriving just off Burnside near Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, circa 2011.

Sufjan delivers all this with the childlike modesty of the folk singer. His primary message is: don’t take this too seriously, just seriously enough that you can walk with me away from the wreck of this world and into another.

This may seem as if I am glorifying Sufjan in a way that his music will not support. And perhaps it is true that his music will not bear comparison to the music of Beethoven or Mahler.[1] Well, assuming that’s true (I have my doubts about knee-jerk deference to the classical masters), so what? My point is not evaluative; my point is syntactic. My point is that the deep historical forces that make Sufjan possible include Beethoven as well as Plato. I’m also saying, as I said in The Middle Mind, that like it or not Indy pop/rock is about the only green and living perimeter, like the stuff just beneath the bark of a tree, that we have left.

Millions of (mostly) young people eagerly await the next album from of Montréal, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Books, Sleigh Bells, Animal Collective, Ween, Deerhunter, or Radiohead just so that they can be reminded again of what it feels like to be alive, and just so that they can be in touch with something worth being loyal to.

And that ain’t nothin’.

The people who live this loyalty have gathered in cities like San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle in order to be among their kind.  Unhappily, unlike their communal brethren of the 1960s, they feel mostly helpless before the money system. They can’t imagine what it would mean to create an alternative economy (not that hippies ever actually did or we wouldn’t be where we are now). So they work in local bookstores, organic groceries, or in bars and restaurants. They try to stay in grad school as long as possible.  They temp in local colleges, or work for social welfare non-profits. Or they take it on the chin as the “useful smart person” who checks the investment banker’s grammar and does other things that useful smart people do…while feeling guilty and defeated by Necessity.  But their real life is their local music and performance culture. They live in a word-of-mouth utopia (now greased by social media). Their utopia is privately networked: “You’ve got to hear this band,” reads the Facebook post, “they have a new cd and they’re playing downtown this weekend.” It’s a form of love, really.  In giving me The Age of Adz, my daughter said, “I’m obsessed with this album.”  She thought I could be too.  If it enriched her inner life, she imagined generously that it could enrich mine. She gave it to me out of a desire that all beings should be happy.  Especially her father.

Now you might say that that’s an easy thing for her to do, me being her father and all.  But how common is this scene: you see someone in an airport listening to her iPod.  You ask what she’s listening to.  She says, “I’m listening to of Montreal’s Skeletal Lamping.”  You say, “That’s a fucking great album.”  (You are both now bonded in some pleasant part of the posterior region of the cortex.  If someone scanned their two brains with magnetoencephalography at just that moment, it would look like they were in love with each other.)  So you say, “Hey, do you know Deerhunter?”  (Of course, anyone who knows of Montreal knows Deerhunter.  I’m trying.  It’s not easy being hip and sixty.  I need a lot of help and forgiveness.)  She says, “No, are they good?”  You get really excited now because you’re going to give her something joyful.  “It so rocks!  The song ‘He Would Have Laughed’ is a whole reason to live in itself.  I can’t wait for you to hear it.  Here’s my cell phone number.  Text me and tell me how you like it.”[2]

The best part of this exchange is that you come away from it feeling happy and alive.  I mean, here you were on this shitty trip, in an airport, eating yet another doughnut, but now you’re just smiling.  You feel as if you have just participated in something that was one part recruitment for a revolution and one part wisdom event.  For a half-hour or so, your neurotransmission is a faucet of pleasure enhancers, especially when you say, “Shit, I’m going to listen to that song myself,” and in go the ear buds.  Yeah!

This loyalty through art is very different from loyalty to a political party, or movement, or struggle. This counterculture reclaims the right to pleasure and play now and not in some distant time when the victorious Party has made the world once again safe for Eros. Dress up now, put on the funky feathers and beads now, dance now, fuck now, laugh a lot, have friends now.  Be happy right now!  So, it’s a word-of-mouth utopia, but it’s also a refusal of the mass loneliness of the money system.

That’s all.

[1] It works in the other direction as well.  After listening again to Adz the other evening, I put on Carl Orff’s Camina Burana. Orff’s masterpiece was written in 1936 and first performed in 1951. Like Adz, it is a complex, architectural, sensuous, and very free work.  It has a full grasp of the tradition of classical orchestration and voice, and yet it seems strangely attuned to the emerging world of the pop recording as well.  It is the first “concept album.”  It has twenty-five “cuts,” and there are at least a dozen songs that a producer could see as A-side singles with big Top 40 potential.  My personal choice would be number 12, Cignus ustus cantat, or, “The song of the roasting swan.”

Once I dwelt in the lakes;

Once I was

A beautiful swan.

O miserable me!

Now I am

Roasted black!

Miser, miser!

[2] Remember Ian Drury and the Blockheads’ “Reasons to Be Cheerful”?  Drury’s knowing irony was that the song itself was the main reason to be cheerful.

4 thoughts on “From the Barbaric Heart: Sufjan Stevens’ Vengeful Play

  1. Thanks for posting this lively, provocative piece. In my reply, I’d like to try out two lines of thought.

    1. On Mysticism. Despite my love of mystical writing, I acknowledge that mysticism needs to confront a thorny dilemma. On the one hand, mystical experience seems to entail solipsism. The longing for deliverance may take me beyond my finite self, and yet it is a also an experience that, in some form or another, I wish to access, retrieve, repeat.

    On the other hand, mysticism may entail quietism, a spiritual consolation in the face of political indecision. If nothing is to be done to transform the current state of affairs, then best to console oneself with ululations.

    I wonder how you understand this dilemma.

    2. On iPod listening. In Issue 11 of n+1, the editors write that “the sophistication–and expense–of the iPod have made adulthood safe for solipsism as never before.” The general line of thought seems to be that music listening, over the course of the 20th C., has become increasingly insular. In the 19th C., there was the concert hall. In the early 21st C., there is the iPod.

    I suspect you want to carve out a *space for sharing* in this our strange world. Could you elaborate?

  2. Thanks Andrew for the comments. For myself, I’m not much interested in mysticism per se but in a kind of pretend mysticism that is really more about the making of countercultures or even counter-worlds. Beginning with the Romantics, mysticism, if you can even call it that, is not about gnosis (secret knowledge of the elect) but a subversion of the infantile thinking and the coercion of established religion. This is the “icy chain of custom” that Shelley speaks of in Queen Mab. But does Shelley really believe in fairies and spirits traveling to the hub of the universe in a celestial cart? Does Byron really believe in Manfred’s occult powers? No, they never really went beyond telling each other ghost stories and scaring the crap out of sensitive Shelley. So, it’s really about claiming the freedom to make new worlds of belief/value that they’re after. And this gesture, through art, is deeply social from the first: inimical to the status quo and urgent in encouraging others to, in essence, drop out of all the stupid, wasteful, destructive things that King and state believed.

    Much the same could be said of the systems of German Idealists like Schiller, Fichte and Schelling. They at times seem like they’re trying to reinvent Buddhism in Western terms, but they are finally wed to that version of Western reason we call dialectic.

    It’s tangled and important work to follow all the threads because, as I try to show, they have had such important consequences for art and a politics of refusal to this day. The thing that I think is most important about the best and most honest Indy music is its openness to the random, to play. The only virtue worthy of a name in Schiller’s Of Naive and Sentimental Poetry is play. His hero of play: Tristram Shandy.

    My modest purpose here is to show how Sufjan is connected to things that we would little expect him to be connected to, and those connections say very good things about what he’s doing over at Asthmatic Kitty records. (Surely the Surrealists deserve a nod with this name, as do the lyrics of a whole host of Indy musicians: Neutral Milk, Radiohead, Beck, and on.)

    As for the iPod: I utterly agree. The things sound like crap. Whatever happened to sound engineering? Talk about devolution. Go get a Frank Sinatra LP on Reprise from the ’50s and throw it on a turntable and hear a real human voice. The best, of course, is live music, but I went to an of Montreal concert in Seattle where the sound was so awful it felt like you were being punished for attending. And they are solipsistic. But digital music has opened up huge possibilities for sharing and proselytizing through music. People do a lot of social sorting and picking of sides through so-called musical taste.

    1. I realize I’m late to this party, but google sent me. My query being: ‘Age of Adz Mix Engineer’ (pretty sure Sufjan mixed it himself). Wow! Mind-boggling sonics on this one (A kinder Nine Inch Nails?) and one of the few proper indie records to merit the distinction of ‘audiophile’. This, in contrast to Radiohead and Beck, whose best and best sounding works were created under a major label
      umbrella. So it has been that most great sounding records were funded by big corporations whose decadent practices enabled the enchanting malaise of ‘OK Computer’ and the charmed pastiche of ‘Odelay’. The indie revolution, though theoretically exciting, has been a sonic disaster. The allure of Deerhunter, Of Montreal, Arcade Fire, and so many others is a ramshackle, lo-fi sensibility—a devolution in sound quality. Now that bands have enough cash to make things sound good, they use expensive studios to record sub-par sound sources. Sonically speaking, Sufjan is an exception to this trend. Long after the term ‘indie’ shakes off all feel good sentiment, The Age of Adz will be an astonishing work. A similiar fate won’t await ‘The Suburbs’.

      Thanx for letting me chime in. Curtis, Thanx for not using age as an excuse to be lame. Thanx Sufjan for making indie music worthy of a revolution.

  3. Calvin: And thanks to Google. I hear you on the sound quality problem. I could maybe accept it from the Athens Elephant 6 groups ten years ago given that they had no money. Olivia Tremor Control’s Black Foliage is a work of genius but it sounds like something produced in a tin can. Low volume and ear buds makes it only tolerable. I bought a 1950s Sarah Vaughn with Cannonball Adderly LP for 1$ recently and when I put it on my turntable the voice was juicy and in the room and Adderly ripped across the voice like something with sharp blades.

    Worse yet are the concerts. I went to an of Montreal concert in Seattle and it was like I was being punished for being there. And I had ear plugs in! I finally just had to leave.

    Has all that old recording magic just been lost? Is it the absence of analog mikes? Better though Stevens’ engineering might be, it still is well behind the best recordings of the 50s and 60s. Last bands that seemed to care was Steely Dan and Elvis Costello.

    I’m with you. I don’t get it.

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