Songs That Matter | Chicago

Hand reaching toward a sunset

Photo by Billy Pasco

Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”

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written by Bill Carbone

 


I’ve made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

 

Me too. Some are immediately obvious; others reveal themselves with time and distance.

I thought for a time that I was an atheist, or an agnostic. I clung to this. The Catholicism in which I was raised seemed ornate and antique—I could find no place for myself in it. The “religion” of political America was antithetical to everything I valued. Elsewhere I saw groups I couldn’t imagine being a part of—I always saw orthodoxy first, and allowed it to define the rest. But I was wrong.

 

I’ve made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

If I was crying
In the van, with my friend
It was for freedom
From myself and from the land

 

I don’t know if it’s a human condition, if doctors have a Latin term for it, but I experience some music in a heightened emotional state. I cry. Sometimes a lot. Once I’ve connected with something—anything from lyrics to a sax solo—I split open. Some form of energy pours through me and out. It’s a physical sensation. Mostly it’s a blessing; I’m grateful to experience joy and beauty so fully. However, as a man, I find it hard not to feel some shame about the crying.

I can’t put my finger on what does it. It’s not a style; it’s not about mastery. My best guess is purity. It feels presumptuous to write it, but I’m pretty sure I can tell when pretense rolls away and we begin dealing in the raw material that supersedes the pursuit of goals and the performance of identities. Vulnerable things.

Sufjan Stevens is a path to that place. Pretty much always.

Stevens is almost unfathomably direct. So much diatonic harmony, so few metaphorical lyrics. He excavates his life, honestly assesses the decisions that lead to his emotions, and bares his truths in song. At times it’s clear that he’s obviously barely holding himself together.

The joy of Stevens’ pain, to me anyway, is that we’re not spectators to the unfolding of an Amy Winehouse or Brian Jones-like train wreck. Rather, we’re along with Stevens as he claws his way forward, honestly forgiving those who have hurt him, and, even more, forgiving himself for his failures, and finding a reason to forever try again. When Stevens works these things out I feel compelled to process my own demons.

I hear Stevens is “Christian”, whatever that means these days. I’ve chosen not to look more deeply into it. I don’t really care which brand of Christian he is, if that’s the case. But I cannot deny that he pulls me in the direction of a raw truthfulness; that he inspires me to shed layers and cease pretending; that he somehow makes me aware of what true love is; that through him, I am momentarily closer to what I know I might be. I feel God through his music.

 

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow

We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go

 

Stevens is redeemed. Not face down on the threshing floor like Baldwin’s John, “invaded, set at naught, possessed… at the very bottom of darkness.” Stevens is found slowly, he is remade in time, he finds the light wave by wave.

And who among us doesn’t actually want redemption? To, in our weakest of moments, collapse our weight into the trusted, loving arms of another and lean into that hold. To own our failures, only to let them go, to be found, confess and shed our foolishnesses, be remade and move forward unburdened? To offer the same to others. Isn’t that the payoff offered by every religion?

“Chicago” is thick with layers of trumpets, tambourines, strings, vocals and more—a texture behind which Stevens could easily hide. Yet he instead humbles himself before it. He tells us he’s been crying, pardon—“if I was crying”—even for him, it’s hard to admit. He shares his moment of failure and redemption. He demonstrates how something—whether one calls “It” Jesus, Allah, or something entirely different—is there for us in every moment of our lives. That he failed before It, yet It cradled him, accepted his truth, reassured him of his value, and inspired him to rise up and try again.

“Chicago” tears me apart, because I’m there with Stevens. I’ve had my failures too. I’ve tried to be people I wasn’t, to lead lives that weren’t supposed to be mine, and they didn’t work. I’ve sat there knowing it, wondering how to move forward. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, in my mind. We’re all poseurs sometimes.

“Chicago” is the story of victoriously escaping from ourselves to be ourselves. As long as we work toward clarity, those mistakes needn’t become our albatrosses to wear forever. We needn’t cling to falsehoods, we can shed our false skins and leave them behind. To recreate us. All things grow.


Bill Carbone is the Vice President of Education at Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation for which his skills as an ethnomusicologist, educator, musician, and people-person coalesce. You may also find him drumming, and even singing, with Max Creek, The Z3, and many others.

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