28 June 2007

Sufjan Stevens' "Chicago"

Revisitation, rememory: a feedback loop.

Sufjan Stevens grew up in the far north of the Lower Peninsula; he went to school in the lonely arts academy Interlochen, its cabins amidst pine forest, and to the college in my hometown, sleeping on Lake Michigan / factories and marching bands - memorialized in 3:26 on Michigan. The college station played it the last time I was home, driving through the old Victorian downtown with my sister, listening over the car radio to the overcast piano, melancholy and quiet.

I listened to "Chicago" looped again, today - the three versions off of Avalanche (the collection of outtakes and extras from Illinois. 48 other states have been promised, but are not expected) and I'm trying now to write around the unwritable feeling of recognition, of complicity, I get listening to Sufjan Stevens at all, to talk about the song itself for a moment.

"Chicago" lends itself to repetition, to revisitation. No wonder Sufjan Stevens recorded so many variations - "Acoustic"; "Adult Contemporary Easy Listening"; "Multiple Personality Disorder". Listen to all of them and each return, each version, does not detract. They pile on one another, cumulative.

You hear for the first time: I fell in love again / all things go, all things go / drove to Chicago / all things known, all things known. The song repeats itself internally, its refrains suffused with nostalgia: All things go, all things go. The complicity - I grew up where he did, I left as well. I've made a lot of mistakes, I've made a lot of mistakes / I've made a lot of mistakes, I've made a lot of mistakes. The song is a memory that resurfaces, a late-night kind of song, a song that by the end, whatever the version, becomes wordless - a trumpet repeating the theme, halfway triumphant.

And then, twice: I fell in love, again - but already in the past tense, another one already gone.

Three times: the "Multiple Personality Disorder Version," all buzzing synth and handclaps, and you're guilelessly optimistic, punch-drunk: I fell in love, again, - but we all know how this ends.

Somehow, though, you keep listening, you go through it all one more time, you recreate the song again, you cue that trumpet and multitracked voices, an implacable chorus that sings, comfortingly, over and over, All things go, all things go.

I can't quite describe to my satisfaction the feeling I get as the song loops around, draws a breath, repeats, that song sung by a man who grew up in the places I've driven to and camped in, the arts school my Upper Penninsula cousin attended, the college I played piano recitals at when I was little and passed every day, who traveled as I do to Chicago and espouses the quiet, taciturn Christianity of my neighbors - who left, as I did. I am hard pressed. The song comes up again over my speakers, cued up three or four times by accident, and starting again it hits me sideways, again.


John B. said...

Your post made me look a bit closer at Avalanche for the first time yesterday when I was at Borders. I hadn't known about the alternate versions of "Chicago," nor had I realized there's easily as much music on it as on Illinoise, if not more. Would you recommend it?

I've never had quite the experience with music that you describe in your last paragraph. However, the first time I visited Mexico City, shortly after having read Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz, and had coffee in a restaurant where one of its scenes is set, I did find myself sort of looking around for characters in the novel. Something about the way the narrative utilizes that space made the resonances between it and my visit there quite strong.

Jim Sligh said...

Stevens can be infuriating for exactly that reason; he announces, say, that he'll make an album for each of the 50 states, but in making Illinois alone he's writen fifty songs and the same song four times.

Avalanche is worth a listen, at the very least. "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair" is worth the price of admittance, and "Pittsfield" is very fine - there are others to recommend as well, though as befits an album of B-sides and alternates the balance have a slightly cast-off quality about them. And of course I've indicated that I can't stop listening to "Chicago."

I listen to music and look for resonances often (a fine choice of word, by the way - it's a frisson different from appreciation in the abstract, like running into a literary character on the street) , but Sufjan Stevens is a special case for me; the phrase, "I know where he's coming from" is overused and presumes too much, and I'd never say something like, "I just hear his lyrics deeper, you know?" (A good friend of mine, God bless him, introduced himself by telling me he was the 'ultimate Dave Matthews fan, in the world,' and that he 'understood Dave's lyrics like no one else.')

All that said, there's a way in which I read his music through my background and find the things I grew up around reflected, or shadowed, above and beyond hearing "Holland" and knowing it is my town. It's a singular feeling, even if partly imagined, partly in my own head.

The County Clerk said...

I am not a music critic but I agree with your statement:

"I can't quite describe to my satisfaction the feeling I get as the song loops around, draws a breath, repeats..." and goes again to remind me of all my connections to it.

The song is unsually touching and personal.