Unanswerable Questions #3b.2: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell Part 2

Let us stare deep into the abyss....of SUFJAN!
I am going to see Sufjan in concert this weekend in Chicago (April 25, 2015)!

So naturally I have more questions I would like to ask him if given the chance. I've kept on listening to Carrie & Lowell the past few weeks and there is more I would like to know about it.

So my ongoing Unanswerable Questions series to Sufjan continues, this time with round 2 of questions about his latest album.

So people have questions for God when they die. Me, I just have questions for Sufjan.

Here is part 1 on Carrie & Lowell and here are some more general questions I put to (a hypothetical) Sufjan: 

PostConsumerReports: I own basically everything you have ever released but am only now just hearing of Thomas Bartlett, who's playing on the album. How long have you been collaborating with him and what part does he play in your process of writing and recording?

PCR: You're the youngest in your family, right? This means you were able to spend the least amount of time with your mom than your siblings. What was your brother's and sister's time with her like? What do they remember about her in those years before you were born? And did they keep up with her more as adults than you did if only because they had more of a connection with her?

PCR: "The Only Thing" waivers on the reasons why you should keep going and why you should kill yourself. Ultimately you decide to keep going, but you don't exactly sound convinced: "blind faith, God's grace, nothing else left to impart" and then ending with your repeated laments "Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow." My question is in regards to the responsibility, if any, the artist has to his/her listeners/viewers, using this song as a specific example to explain a general approach. Suicide in this song is almost appealing, almost gloriously macabre. But then you draw us away from suicide, saying "no, you have to keep going." Still at the very end there's almost a caveat: "I guess...if I have to I'll keep on living...I probably should..." 

As an artist (and feel free to speak in the 3rd person speaking generally for The Artist) where does the balance lie in leaving a work entirely open ended and then giving people answers? I would think the balance would be somewhere in the middle, because neither of those extremes are satisfactory. I see you wrestling with this question throughout Carrie & Lowell both personally and through the art—giving a brief answer of some kind but then half-heartedly rescinding the answer, and then vice versa, really provoking with some ambivalent statement but then trying to offer hope or a direction. You go back and forth throughout the whole work. I think this is innate to the human condition and so you're merely reflecting what we all kind of do, but I'm interested to hear what you think the responsibility of The Artist is between offering answers and getting people to ask their own questions. And maybe the subject of suicide is an appropriately conflicted jumping off point, because what would you do if you ever heard that someone had committed suicide themselves after listening to your songs? What would that do to you as a person and an artist?

PCR: Forgive me if I haven't delved into the songs enough but I don't really sense Lowell as being very present in the songs. Are there particular places where he comes in as a narrator or where he is mentioned in passing that a listener might not recognize?

PCR: A lot of people have made mention of your references to Christian imagery on the album and how it shows a return to expressing your faith more directly as on Seven Swans. And I see that too, but a lot of the commenters fail to mention all your references to Greek mythology or to birds, insects, and horses, which along with your faith are your means to illuminating the story of you and your mother. And really, what you're doing is in line with established poetic tradition, drawing from multiple sources, pagan, Christian, and otherwise, to make allusions. The other day I was listening to a version of Beethoven's 9th symphony on Youtube and they had a translation of the libretto accompanying it. There are a whole bunch of references to both the Christian faith as well as to mythology. To the question: do all your references work their way naturally into your songs or is it something you consciously try to do when in the songwriting process?

PCR: I read someone's take on "Beloved My John", which said it was written from three perspectives: you, John the disciple, and Jesus. How right were they? And what is that song a meditation of? Where does it fit into your own narrative? You also seem to be drawing out a homoerotic view of Jesus and John's relationship. Is there any truth to that and if so, where is that coming from?

PCR: How therapeutic has playing the songs live been for you? And have you gotten feedback from others? Everyone has their parental hangups, some more serious than others. How well does "art as therapy" sit with you?

PCR: Can you give a sense of some of the events and places that appear throughout the songs. Obviously I'm a Wikipedia article or a municipality website away from getting info on them, but I'm more interested in your take on the events/places and how your personal history is wrapped up in them. Especially for those of us not from Oregon, what can you tell us about Spencer's Butte, Emerald Park, the Tillamook Burn, your lemon tree, the valley of the Dalles, the Blue Bucket of Gold Mine, and that fateful 4th of July? 

Related Posts:
An Amazing List of Unreleased Sufjan Stevens Songs
Carrie & Lowell is a Minor Sufjan Stevens Album (and that's a good thing)
Unanswerable Questions 3b: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell
What the New Sufjan Album is Teaching Me
Remainder: I Still Hate Sufjan Stevens

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