An approximation of the inevitable

Sufjan Stevens publicly grieves the mother he never knew.


Photo courtesy of Charlie Bergum

Evan Stewart, Writer

I am terrified of grief. I have no experience with it, no understanding of it on anything more than a vague, intellectual level. What little I know I have seen in others and glimpsed through art. But empathy only goes so far and art is only expression. It can acutely capture a variety of emotions and experiences, but grief is not one of them. Stacked side by side, the emotions and experiences evoked by art will never compare to those we have ourselves. It might make us feel a certain way, but life will always do it one better and with grief, artists can only offer an approximation of the whole.

Intimate and Heartbreaking

With that said, Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell” is the closest approximation of grief I have experienced. Performed live, the intimate and heartbreaking album about the recent death of his mother was all the more powerful. Throughout the show, home movies and Oregon landscapes were projected intermittently on diamond-shaped screens in the background, enhancing every note and word.

I kept my composure for the first three songs. Then, I watched a child’s hand reach out of his or her seat, grasping at a spotlight shining overhead. It called to mind the “hysterical light” referenced in “Eugene,” the song that followed, a collection of observations about his mother from a summer he spent with her when he was three. Sitting next to my mom, I began to cry.

Perhaps no song affected me more than “John My Beloved.” Among his most complex, the song shifts narrators from Sufjan to the disciple John, watching Christ die on the cross, to Jesus himself, before returning to Sufjan, still grieving the mother who abandoned him. The motif of fossils evolves right alongside the narrators, ultimately coming to mean all the painful products of Sufjan’s grief that plagued him in the months after her death. It is an astounding song, both daunting in its lyricism and overwhelming in its intimacy.

An Emotional Finale

Eventually, Sufjan began to play older, but thematically cohesive songs, giving me a chance to calm down before the emotional finale. With “Blue Bucket of Gold,” instead of those few summers he spent with his mother in Oregon, the home movies showed everything Carrie missed — birthdays, graduations, college — mourning each memory.  The encore was a welcome relief, but even “Chicago,” the usually bombastic crowd pleaser, was toned down to something quieter.

Grief hung over every moment of the night. I left the theater exhausted, trying to piece together everything I wanted to say. Sufjan’s music makes me want to be a better writer, but writing about him now, I cannot help but feel a little inadequate. In all likelihood, my passion for writing will not pan out. Were artistic inspiration my only takeaway from his work, it would be a rather tenuous connection.

The Penultimate Lines

But his music also makes me want to be a better Christian. I am no more prepared for grief after having listened to it. I am still scared. And I know that when I finally do encounter grief and all the painful things that accompany it, my faith will be dramatically challenged. But when that time comes, I will have the penultimate lines of “John My Beloved” to fall back on —“Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head.”

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