July 4th, Sufjan, and the Wake-up Call of Death

We’re All Gonna Die with Sufjan Stevens and Tim Keller

This week, Sufjan Stevens announced a new, forthcoming solo album titled The Ascension, his first since Carrie and Lowell debuted in March 2015. I remember listening to the album on that frigid March morning, sitting with my legs cramped underneath my dorm room desk. Tears sprung up in my eyes six songs-deep on a track titled “Fourth of July.” The song chronicles a night Sufjan spent at the bedside of his dying mother as cancer spread through her body. Years later, the song is still one of the most impactful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

About seven months after Carrie and Lowell released, I went to see Sufjan play a concert in a grand orchestra hall in Pittsburgh. I sat with my friends in the top row of the theater, a faraway place from the stage. The concert was beautiful, interesting, awe-inspiring. One of its most powerful moments came when the set blended together two different songs, “Fourth of July” and “Vesuvius.” During “Vesuvius,” the lights swirled and swept across the stage and auditorium as the instruments made chaotic buzzing and whirring noises—a multi-sensory imitation of the historic volcano’s eruption. Then, rather suddenly, the noises stopped. Quiet. Then, after a pause, the final lyrics of “Fourth of July,” echoed through the auditorium: We’re all gonna die.

The moment was overwhelming. In the row in front of me, a few of the girls who were on dates with guys shifted in their seats, visibly unsettled by the noise and the flashing, then the silence that was followed by a refrain reminding us invincible college students of our inevitable death. Years later, I still think about that moment. One sign of a great artist is when their art leaves an impression long after you’ve first seen their painting, read their poem, or heard their song. Sufjan is one of those artists.

Nevertheless, my first impression was to think it odd that Sufjan choose “Fourth of July” as the title for a very sad song about his mother’s death. I, and most Americans I imagine, associate the Fourth of July with happy celebrations—fireworks and grilled hot dogs and parties with family and friends. The Fourth of July is a holiday that celebrates the grandeur of America and the glorious freedoms that are ours. But in 2020, the juxtaposition between the sobering lyrics of Sufjan’s “Fourth of July” and the exuberance of the holiday no longer strike me as odd or ill-fitting. This Fourth of July, America is in the midst of a pandemic, a climaxing crisis of racial inequality, and some parts of our country are literally darkened by a cloud of dust. It’s never been so easy to nod along with the echoing refrain:

We’re all gonna die.

But just because this sentiment feels authentic does not mean I feel exuberant about it, ready to set off a celebratory firecracker into the summer sky. On the contrary, the problems of this world and my powerlessness to change many of them make me feel like those girls who sat in front of me at the Sufjan concert. I find myself shifting uncomfortably from my seat as the chaos and noise of the present world swirl around me. Other times, I am mesmerized by the spectacle of the situation, my senses overwhelmed by the new clips on my phone, my eyes unable to look away. Regardless of how I feel, the soundtrack of “Fourth of July” plays on. And the older I get, the more I realize how important it is to not close my eyes as the lights flash or plug my ears as an echoing refrain follows an eerie silence:

We’re all gonna die.

How I move forward after hearing this refrain is what interests me the most. I do not want to pray for America’s fiery, Vesuvius-like demise as penance for its sins. Nor do I want to ignore the discomfort and dissonance of America’s present circumstances this Fourth of July, attempting to overpower it with John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

I think there is much to be learned from the way Sufjan took his own pain and made it into music that affects, inspires, moves, and reminds. While the refrain We’re all gonna die could come off as nihilistic, it could also be heard, as Tim Keller writes in his latest book On Death, as “smelling salts.” He writes, “Smelling salts are very disagreeable, but they are also very effective,” explaining further,

Rather than living in fear of death, we should see death as spiritual smelling salts that will awaken us out of our false belief that we will live forever. When you are at a funeral, especially one for a friend or a loved one, listen to God speaking to you, telling you that everything in life is temporary except for His love. This is reality.

Ironically, Keller’s On Death was released just two months before he would announce that he has pancreatic cancer. Keller shared the news on his social media accounts rather matter-of-factly, as if to say, “This is reality,” or, “We’re all gonna die.” It is. We will. This Fourth of July reality can feel very disagreeable, indeed. With so much pain and death and disagreement in the world, a cheery march feels like just what the doctor (should have) ordered. But as a passage towards the end of Keller’s book reminds me, and just as Sufjan’s sad, beautiful music also alludes to, there is freedom in these reminders of our mortality. Keller concludes,

When facing death, however, our enemy allows us to see the full scope of our cosmic treason, and what answer do we have then? Only this—that Jesus has taken our punishment and set us free, and there is now no condemnation left for us. Rejoice!

There feels like very little to rejoice about this Fourth of July, specifically when the object of our celebration is America. But perhaps the strange and sad circumstances we find ourselves experiencing this holiday are the realities we needed. As the America I grew up in erupts in flames, my senses are being awakened—as if by smelling salts. So though the difficult news continues to buzz and whirl all around me, I am listening closely for the song that will be sung next. Its refrain is simultaneously surprising, shocking, sobering, and effervescent. It tells the truth of the risen Lord, of the truest freedom that was, and is, and is to come.

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2 responses to “July 4th, Sufjan, and the Wake-up Call of Death”

  1. Anna Beaudry says:

    Love this Grace; thank you for putting into words the thoughts that have been scrambling around my head for days.

  2. Pierre says:

    At least once a summer since 2015, I’ve taken a long bike ride around the 4th of July to listen to that album. It really helped me process some of my own grief, and now it reminds me of summer and all its melancholic, transitory beauty. Listening to “Fourth of July” on the 4th of July is always a trip.

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