Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Triumphant Return of Sufjan Stevens, Part I

In 1965 Paul Simon dumped upon an unsuspecting world "The Sound of Silence", one of the greatest songs ever written. Beloved by everyone. Seriously, can you show me one (reasonable) person who does not like that song? And it is worthy, scalp to toenail, of all the praise thrown its way over the years.

The song's message has only become more relevant with time. Simon sings of a dark vision cut and complemented by a neon sign/idol distracting everyone "and in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share." The uncomfortable, damning silence is the communal response of his generation and continues to be so in ours. "'Fools', I said, 'You do not know. Silence, like a cancer, grows. Hear my words that I might teach you. Take my arms that I might reach you.' But my words like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence." This silence metaphorically sends a message all its own, in many different forms all sharing a common root - at least part of which (in my ears) seems to be a lack of communion and dialogue. Simon says.

Here we are 35 years later, and Sufjan Stevens just released, yesterday, an 8 song, 60 minute EP titled "All Delighted People". The first and last songs are masterpiece bookends. This post is labeled part 1, because it deals with the first track, which his label describes as a "long form epic ballad...a dramatic homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui, and Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence"".

Sufjan jumps right at Simon's vision in the first line, "Tomorrow you'll see it through the clouded out disguises put you in the room...and I remember every sound it made...I'm not easily confused...And the people bowed and prayed. And what difference does it make for you and me? All delighted people raise their hands." That refrain of "all delighted people..." becomes progressively more sad and ironic as the song progresses. Simon pleaded with the people to take his arms. Sufjan responds, "And I took you by the sleeve."

It's not the only time he's taken a sleeve. In Sufjan's song "No Man's Land" (which in was a response to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land") he sang, "This land is not your land, for the right hand takes what it can. Ransacks with the madman. For this land is not yours or mine to have. This land was made for the good of itself." Our culture's obsessive solipsism and it's death grip on the world play a role here as well.

Ultimately the last stanza pokes at those existential questions. This is a bitter confused slosh of a world. "Oh! But the world is a mess. And what difference does it make if the world is a mess? If the world is a mess! I tried my best. I tried in vain. Oh! But the world is a mess!" The back and forth of it is painfully uncomfortable. We tend to reach plateaus in life where we think we've learned to cope & compromise with the unfairness/horrors/messiness of the world. Probably because its finger isn't immediately upon us at that moment. Then it touches us again and sends us spinning. There is a yearning in his voice for connection and communion. "Oh! I love you a lot; Oh! I love you from the top of my heart. And you can see through my mistakes." The last line is a plea for the children, "Suffer not the child among you or shall you die young...", that last ellipses alluding, but not yielding at last, to the song's title.

The subject matter is everything but "delightful". But isn't it an amazing, joyful, awe-inspiring, yea, even delightful thing that this song was even written today? Lady GaGa, despite all her shock and awe domination of music media, is entirely banal. And I'm not advocating that all music must be all Sound-of-Silencey all the time (I will sing loud and strong anytime "Since U Been Gone" and "Irreplaceable" pop up on my iPod). But I do worry, are we missing a dialogue here? Are we as a culture still spiraling downward in a lack of true human communication and connection? All delighted people, raise their hands!

Feel free to listen to the song free of charge HERE. And/or pay 5 bucks and buy the EP.


jomama said...

hooray! i'm so glad you posted about sufjan. i haven't been paying much attention to new music lately, so i had no idea about this new ep. so glad you wrote about it; he's one of my very favorite musicians of all time. i'm off to listen to the new album!

Les said...

jomama! I would love to hear your thoughts on the EP after you've had your listen. :)