Sunday, October 07, 2007

song of the week: chicago - sufjan stevens

My sister pointed out how lazy I’ve been with the blog recently. Truth is, I’ve been sort of busy. Still, that’s never a good enough excuse for not writing, so in an attempt to ensure I don’t forget how, song of the week is back.

Opening with a series of gently climbing chimes played on a glockenspiel/xylophone/
marimba/whatever in a series of ascending and then descending notes, Sufjan Stevens’ Chicago is a song that I always take to be about change, despite the fact it's doesn't go anywhere. That simple, see-saw beginning that promises new dawns and bright days - sounding like eyes opening, kettles whistling and toast popping - glides effortlessly into a soaring, pounding journey that gives the impression of continually moving, whilst never diverting from its opening structure, dropping you back six minutes later almost exactly where you began.

Sufjan Stevens’ layered multi-tracked sound (one-man-masquerading-as-entire-orchestra) works to gild the opening progressions, through lush looped strings, uptight, pulsing keyboards, rumbling bass and even-tempered drumming, pulling back to that same soothing opening, before it’s time for the brass, the crashing symbols, the choir. This series of ceaselessly changing, but returning riffs, gives Chicago its tireless, sweeping momentum, pushing you through the song at subtle speed whilst delicately tearing you to pieces.

Because despite, but also maybe because, of its mounting, rapturous repetitions, Chicago is one of those beautifully depressing songs. Whether it’s the soft, inevitable repetition of Sufjan’s simple refrains, shifting from ‘all things go’, to the barely believable ‘all things grow’, or the final, resigned ‘I made a lot of mistakes’, the song’s illusion of progress leaves me feeling both uplifted and empty.

From the first chorus, the innocent, untrained choir flips the previously vague, willowy lyrics into worshipful hymn (you came to take us, all things go, all things go / to recreate us, all things grow, all things grow) opening the song up to characteristic Sufjan Christian spirituality - which he very sensibly leaves up to you whether to take or leave. I don’t have it in me to sing along like I truly mean it, and perhaps it's that unwillingness to take that leap of faith that means I always leave the song too soon. I never quite make it onto the choir’s final chorus with it's clean, bell-like trumpet. Instead, I’m left with the taut restraint of Sufjan’s last solo, coming not towards the end of the song (as you may think) but almost directly in the middle;

if I was crying /in the van, with my friend
it was for freedom / from myself and from the land
I made a lot of mistakes / I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes / I made a lot of mistakes

The closing choral repetition glances off me with little impact as the song reaches its peaceful conclusion. When Chicago ends with the same opening chimes, overlaid with swooning choral voices, flattening into a trembling violin, I feel little more than a calm emptiness. Perhaps sometimes it takes an elegant, complex epic to make you feel virtually nothing at all, except the skin you’re wearing.


At 08 October, 2007 16:18 , Anonymous Sash said...

oh God. This song, for me, is walking or cycling through Oxford last winter, in the dark, on my own, feeling more alone than I thought I ever could. Knowing that even when I got home it wouldn't be any more home than out there on the road on my own, because all the things or people that could have made it so were far away. It just sums up for me the terrible truth of having to go through all the dark times...

I'm actually sitting in the library howling just remembering. I shall stop and go to my grad drinks party...

see you tomorrow!

At 14 October, 2007 08:31 , Blogger Philippa said...

'Sort of busy'. Hugs.

The first song of the week I can hear in my head as I read your post! I always took it to be about change too, and I think it does go somewhere - apart from to the obvious cities. I always thought it was about finding some kind of understanding, perhaps a bleaker truth. It leaves me feeling a bit empty too, and sadder, and yet both of these are somehow good things.

Then again John Wayne Gacy, Jr. is one of my favourite songs, so I don't know what that says about me.

Love you xxx


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