Two years ago, I saw Sufjan in concert, promoting his new album, the Age of Adz. It was a disconcerting experience. People were flapping around in grubby bird costumes, Sufjan was dancing like a tired kid at a rave, everyone was wearing neon colors in a decidedly self-conscious way. The auditorium was packed with people just like me, enraptured with a story that seemed to have no soul. I myself felt like I was watching the concert behind a plate of glass; I was separated, simply by my need for something real. That concert was the first time my husband and I had left the house together as parents; our first date since everything changed for us 3 months earlier. Since we had our baby, long before she was due. Since I almost died, long days spent in the hospital, longer days spent quarantined at home. Life was now filtered through a different colored lens, and it made frivolity and noise seem juvenile, pretentious, and more than a little stupid. Sufjan, in an interview with Pitchfork, admitted that The Age of Adz was a departure from songwriting, more like an experiment with sound and excess. “This is not a populist album”, he said, “It isn’t for everyone.”
But from where I was sitting, perched up high in the balcony, I was the only one left wanting more. I was the only one who yearned for an actual message, not some trussed up exploitative meandering song based on another man’s mental illness. I wanted my own illness to be addressed. The gaps were widening between the people who were content with strutting and dancing and making art; and those of us who were barely treading water, wanting something to clutch as we floated along.
Like many long-time Sufjan listeners, I wanted something spiritually significant In all my sleep-deprived emotionalism, I nearly cried that night as I watched the performance. I couldn’t find anything to hold on to, at all.
I am going to see Sufjan again tonight, a part of his Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice Tour. I’m a little nervous, but my expectations are quite a bit lower. I no longer feel the need for popular music to validate my experience; I am getting a tiny bit more sleep now than I was back then.
But Sufjan’s music continues to dig into my soul, causes me to lay awake at night and think Big Thoughts. His new Christmas Box Set is no exception–for every silly song about Santa there is a gorgeous, haunting hymn to go along with it. The music seems to sum up the mood of myself, and so many others around me.
I did a weird little review of the album for The Curator, which in my opinion is one of the websites to read on the internet (intellect+wit+soul=magic).
Here’s the intro to the piece:
Being a Christian in the midst of Christmas is hard. I have tried making presents by hand; I have tried not going to malls. I have tried abstaining from peppermint lattes; I have sat in midnight mass and prayed to feel sober and holy like I should. But time and time again my good intentions get crowded out in the collective search for a holiday that is my own invention. I am overwhelmed by the nostalgia of times with family, before people got sick or moved across the country, before we knew what things were really like around the world. I find myself longing to forget my troubles, my struggles, and instead find myself looking fondly at all the cultural displays—presents, Santa, spiked eggnog. I guess everything does look better under twinkly lights.
Why don’t you mosey on over and finish the rest?