Sufjan Stevens’ Season of Hopelessness

“Let the Record Show What I Couldn’t Quite Confess / For by Living for Myself I Was Living for Unrest.”

Guest Contributor / 10.9.20

This lovely reflection comes to us from Jeb Ralston.

And to everything, there is no meaning
A season of pain and hopelessness

Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, The Ascension, moves away from the poignant yet hopeful lament of Carrie and Lowell into a spacey but sober reproof. This album could easily be viewed as the Ecclesiastes of the Sufjan corpus.

Some have gone so far to say that this album is about Sufjan losing his faith, but that is not what is happening (as Sufjan has also suggested). This album is not a deconstruction of faith in God, but a crisis in discovering a hidden emptiness in his culture, his city, his country, and himself. Like the preacher of Ecclesiastes, he has not lost faith in God, but he has lost his faith in just about everything else.

Derek Kidner, the late Old Testament scholar, once wrote that the author of Ecclesiastes could be relentless in facing that final emptiness, first because there is the truth about this passing world, but also because there is a bigger truth to live by.” And I believe this is exactly what Sufjan is attempting to do with this album.

In a recent interview, Sufjan commented that he is tired of writing songs about his own life and feels he now has the experience to speak into our cultural condition:

Ive been doing this for 20 years, and how many songs have I written about my own personal grievances [with] judgment against myself, self-deprecation, and sorrow? I was like, No, I dont want to write another song about my dead mother. I want to write a song that is casting judgment against the world.

Sufjan, like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, has grown old and lived a lot of life. He has experienced the ups and downs of our creaturely existence, and is now ready to teach us about the emptiness of his pursuits.

Of course, it must be said, Sufjans tone in recent interviews barely matches the tone and lyrics of his songs. Sufjan may come off as angry and judgmental in interviews, but he speaks hyperbolically and somewhat inconsistently. He even notes the irony:

It felt like a tremendous relief for me to not be singing about myself for the first time in a while. Even though I’m clearly the center of every song – there’s first-person pronouns all over the place, and it’s my voice – I feel like I’m not speaking to my own personal injury.

I’m speaking to a generalized social misery that we’re all going through.

As I wrote elsewhere on Mbird, his album contains a great deal of personal pronouns because Sufjan sees the inherent irony in criticism. Sufjan cannot help but speak to himself in the process of exhortation. And it is significant that his albums title track turns this exhortation upon himself. As perhaps the most contemplative and existential track on the album, it opens with the lines of Sufjan on his metaphorical deathbed:

When I am dead and the light leaves my breast
Nothing to be told, nothing to confess
Let the record show what I couldn’t quite confess
For by living for myself I was living for unrest

Whether Sufjan is consciously or unconsciously channeling the inverse of Augustines famous catchphrase (Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”) remains to be seen. But this album plays like the dawning revelation at the dead end of ones restless pursuits. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, after all of his lifes endeavors, he insists thatall is vanity and a striving after the wind” (2:17).

Most of his songs on this album express something of this realization. He wants resolution and a happy ending but struggles to see how we will meet that in this life. Die Happy” consists of just one repeating line —I wanna die happy” — which is infused with a biting and obvious irony. The opening track Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” borrows some Job-like dialogue to speak in the voice of a man honestly confronting his Creator about the condition of life. Video Game” demonstrates the folly of celebrity culture, and Goodbye To All That” is a personal farewell to the Greatest City in the World.

While most songs on the album address the vanity of life, “Run Away with Me” communicates the Preacher’s insistence that this life is not without mitigation (cf. Ecc 9:7-9). Tell Me You Love Me” and Ursa Major” represent Sufjans own dialogue with God about how to go forward in spite of it. In the former, Sufjan begs God to continue to love him even in the insecurities of life:

My love, Ive lost my faith in everything
Tell me you love me anyway
My love, I feel myself unravelling
Tell me you love me anyway

In the latter, Sufjan presents a surprising and contrasting self-assurance:

I wanna love you, I wanna love you
Until the earth runs through it
I wanna love you, I wanna love you
And I’m definitely gonna do it

Sufjans dissonance — both lyrically and musically — is present throughout the album. He is realizing his own futility. And this album is about waking up from our collective stupor.  It is about ridding ourselves of idols. It is about becoming sober. This album, like Ecclesiastes, is like a cold shower for the hot and heavy American dream. And it is about being exposed to our own folly so that we might become receptive to something better.

A material answer to the problem of the human condition is not enough for Sufjan, as in another recent interview he states:

I started to think, What if our problems weren’t real or actual but metaphysical?Almost like stepping back and instead of trying to fix things concretely, start to fix things more spiritually, and maybe even existentially. Why am I here? What is this all for? What’s my purpose? What’s my calling?

What Sufjan is perhaps getting at here is that there is no human solution to the human predicament.
There is no human answer to the incoherence I feel down into the deepest recesses of my heart. I cannot meet the ideal I have for myself. I cannot ultimately fix myself in the ways I need fixing. I can hardly even catch my breath. And I can only manage to pretend otherwise.

This album is done with pretending. It is done with the cover-ups and glossing over of cheap human solutions to deep human problems. The album ends on the edge of ascent.

As Sufjan says, we endure a season of … hopelessness.” Which means this hopelessness is not ultimate.

The frustrations, the disappointments, the loneliness, the heartbreaks, the longings, the persistent sins and vices, everything that feels so profoundly incoherent with the ways things ought to be both inside and outside ourselves is not ultimate.

As Kidner said, “… there is a bigger truth to live by.”

The only bigger truth is the one of the suffering servant. The one who entered into our condition to die. Who descended, that we may ascend. Who has risen, so we too may rise. The groaning we feel in our hearts will someday cease, and this dissonance will not have the final word. And we will someday know the joy, intimacy, and permanence of life eternal with Him. Our restless hearts will finally know rest.

And even Sufjan cannot help but vocalize the hope of this beatific end, even in this season of hopelessness:

And I will bring you life
A new communion
With a paradise that brings the truth of light within
And I will show you rapture
A new horizon
Follow me to life and love within

Image courtesy of the artist.