Sufjan Stevens / (c) Selective Artists
In 1969, the swiss-american psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a theory on how people with terminal illness deal with being confronted with their diagnose. This model later on was adapted to how people close to the sick person dealt with their loss after their loved one had died. The so called stages of grief included various phases of attempts to deal with this shattering life-changing situation:
- denail („This can’t be true! S/He’s still alive.“),
- anger („Why does s/he do this to me? I need her/him!“),
- bargain („Maybe if I just live in my memories, it’s gonna feel like s/he’s still there!“),
- depression („Life without her/him isn’t worth living any more. All my sense of purpose has died with my loved one)
- and acceptance (Even though it’s hard and difficult, at some point I’ll have to continue my own life, even if it’s hard“).
Encountering people in our lifes leaves traces inside of us, not only memories, but according to object relations theory, we develop an inner image (an object) of a person. This image includes how we see this person, of what they remind us, associations, expectations, fears, mutual experiences etc. These objects, either via identification or demarcation („I am like this person!“ vs. „I’m so different than this person!“), become part of our identity and how we see ourselves. Morgenthaler says, refering to Freud:
When an object relation ends, commonly an identification with the lost object occurs. Freud wrote in „Mourning And Melancholia“ that objects possibly can never really be relinquished, but always leave their traces as identifications in the Ego. As the Ego develops itself through its relations to the objects, one can state that the Ego is constructed out of identifications with former love objects.
Speaking in less technical terms, American poet e. e. cummings expresses a similar sentiment by simply saying:
I carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)
While listening to Sufjan Stevens‘ latest record Carrie & Lowell, which deals with the death of Stevens‘ mother Carrie in 2012, in many moments I felt reminded of these descriptions of a desperate mind trying to come to terms with the experience of such an existential crisis.
Sufjan Stevens is an US-American singer-songwriter, who’s been particularily known for his storytelling, dressed in beautifully arranged alternative folk / country-songs. By now, I’ve grown tired of journalists still mocking his idea of making a concept album of every of the 50 states of the USA after gaining commercial success with his albums on Michigan (Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State, 2003) and Illinois (Come on Feel The Illinoise, 2005), respectively (Seriously, guys! It was a joke! A promo joke! It’s been ten years! Can we let this one rest, please?). In 2010 he dipped into ornamenting his songs with delicate electronic experimentation, resulting in The Age Of Adz. This record explored the perceptions and subjective realities of people suffering from schizoprenia, and was inspired by his personal experiences of his mother suffering from the illness, and the work of american artist Royal Robertson.
On his recent album Carrie & Lowell, the listener is invited to peer through Stevens inner eye while it passes reminiscing through various biographical scenes of his relationship with his mother and his time of grieving. You see a person being thrown around by his emotions and impulses in reaction to what is happening: the numbing, the paralysis, an inability to react in any way, helplessness, desperation, that eventually lead to an outburst of emotions – and still everything inside of you is fighting the moment of realizing the dimensions of what is happening here.
(c) Selective Artists
Stevens voice has a very soft, almost mumbling quality, to the effect that the vocals crawl right up your skin, creating the notion that the things he sings about are so intimate that they can’t be spoken out loud. An example is the opener Death With Dignity, where the sparse arrangement mirrors the process of hesitantly, timidly approaching what it is there in your stomach (both, Stevens reflecting, and the listener entering the record), and how, when you found out, it overfloates your whole being and your body. A lot of the songs start restrained and reduced, before, when coming to the core of the sentiment, expanding into a sonical landscape, where the intensity of piano sounds, crescending electric guitar feedback, reverb, tremoulous and wafting notes build up to a lulling and washed out sound cloud where everything sinks into the sentiment. This is the moment where the running away, the fighting and rearing up against what has happened doesn’t work anymore and the barriers break. The songs become haunted by faded nostalgic memory flashbacks and the echoes and traces left by the people who disappeared come to the surface, accompanied by the anger, the sadness and the remorse experienced by the one who was left behind.
The different stages of grief can be found all over Carrie & Lowell. The process of passing through these stages typically is not linear, but curved, with various fall-backs and advances, and in Should Have Known Better, Stevens, still in shock, tumbles between the stages: Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing / the breakers in the bar, the neighbor’s greeting (denial) // Don’t back down, there is nothing left / the breakers in the bar, no reason to live (depression) // Don’t back down, nothing can be changed (…) My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination (acceptance). The mentioning of his newborn niece alludes to the (cruelly? consolatingly?) neverending circle of life: We all die. And at the same time, new human begins get born. Life ending and beginning.
(c) Selective Artists
There is the overwhelming moment of Fourth Of July in the hospital, a recap of the ultimate conversation – a mother trying to console her son before she dies. The scene is not unlike Death Cab For Cuties heartbreaking hospital drama What Sarah Said, where Ben Gibbard concludes: There’s no comfort in the waiting room: Suddenly the realization hits that you never really grows up and you’re never as much faced with being responsible completely for yourself and on your own, as much as when the person who always has been there in your life – your mother – is gone, and you subsequentley loses all balance: „Was it all a disguise, like Junior High / Where everything was fiction, future and prediction / Now, where am I? My fading supply“. I think everybody has, despite of all loving, certain issues with their parents. But knowing that a mentally ill mother who under the burden of trying to stay stable for herself, asks her son, probably worried or regretful: „Did you get enough love, my little dove / Why do you cry? (…) Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light“ – it just tears my heart apart.
On various occasions in the lyrics, Stevens refers to the part inside of him that now feels dead as for having been so closely connected with the person who died. The variety of religious and biblical images serve to illustrate his personal Job’like theodicy conflict, and these pressing questions after a sense gets asked in Drawn to the Blood: „How? How did this happen? (…) What did I do to deserve this?“ His desperation and rage reach its peaks in The Only Thing, where he resignes: „Do I care if I survive this? (…) Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow / Should I tear my heart out / Everything I feel returns to you somehow“ before rhetorically, sarcastically asking: „How do i live with a ghost?“.
In another song, All Of Me Wants All Of You, he is alluding to the loss of a unresponsive and ignoring partner („You’re not the one to talk things through / you checked your text while i masturbated“). Again, he comes to the conclusion that the deepest anger and animosity often stem from a previous deep, frustrated love. An explicit attempt of steering clear of her („Now all of me thinks less of you) changes to moments of missing her („on the sheet i see your horizon / all of me pressed onto you (…) I’m just a ghost you walk right through“) until it eventually changes back into the primary sentiment of affection, longing and missing („all of me wants all of you“). Anger is a phase, but unfortunately it’s not remedy, and not the end of the process.
(c) Selective Artists
A remarking quality of this record is that even though it deals with heavy states of mind like regret, frustration and depression, it always succeeds in guiding the listener a certain mood which is mainly charactered by innocence. While listening to this record, one is so closely connected to the protagonists feelings that one is never tempted to follow him in his self-reproaches, one never actually wants to judge on anyone, etc., because the sheer authenticity of his suffering is so apparent. We intuitively feel that in order to „get“ what he is saying, thinking is not the way to go. You get completely absorbed by his suffering, his longing and his craving for redemption.
To loose someone is such an existential moment that consequently it puts everything else in perspective: „The real world“, the functioning, the reasoning. Instead, by brutal force of the situation, we are very close in touch with who we really are in a very pure way, even though it might still be hold off by the impulse of avoiding the pure desesperation and the feeling of finding yourself being completely lost.
There is something about country / folk music that makes it appear a perfect soundtrack to road trips or movies: a sense of being open, curious and particularily receptive of the unknown surroundings. So maybe, after all, it does make sense: On this record, Sufjan Stevens does not take the listener on a journey through an US-American state. He takes us on a journey through our insides.
- Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1969). On Death And Dying. Routledge.
- Fritz Morgenthaler (1986). Technik. Zur Dialektik der psychoanalytischen Praxis. Taschenbücher Syndikat / EVA: Frankfurt am Main (translated by the author).
- Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell. Asthmatic Kitty, 2015.