Sufjan Day #1: Sister
I thought I'd start out the Sufjan reflections with what I consider to be the most "right on" of his tracks. For those of you weak on your Sufjan, his 50 states project exemplifies the importance of place and time in his music. Thus, a CD devoted to Michigan is meant to feel like Michigan. Listening to the songs should conjure up smells, sounds, and memories of the places for those who have been there and to allow others to have their own mystical encounter to a land they have yet to traverse. Since Sufjan's starting points are states I'm familiar with, I have been able to channel my Michigan/Chicago memories into these cds. One song, however, captures place for me better than the rest, and that is Sister off Seven Swans.
Perhaps a cast off from the Michigan album, Sister finds it's place in the middle of Seven Swans, serving as a guide post and centering point for an un-50 states cd that covers broader themes, often more overtly theological than his 50 states work. The song opens with an extended guitar solo, eventually doubled by a voice that is singing the guitar solo along with it. This alone works to capture the place of lake Michigan, or more broadly the Midwest. Who can endure the humid summer without a good guitar solo from time to time? Where else but lake Michigan can you get so totally immersed in your place and the song that you find yourself singing along with the guitar solo, unaware and unconcerned with a lack of vocals?
But then the words sneak in...
What the water wants is hurricanes
and sailboats to ride on its back
What the water wants is sunkiss
and land to run into and back
I have a fishstone burning my elbow
reminding me to know that I'm glad
and I have a bottle filled with my own teeth
they fell out like a terrible pack
and I have a sister somewhere in Detroit
she has black hair and small hands
and I have a kettle drum I'll hit the earth with you
and I will crochte you a hat
and I have a red kite I'll put you right in it
I'll show you the sky
What makes these lyrics so overwhelming is, to start, that somehow Sufjan has communicated with Lake Michigan. These things are exactly what the water wants. While a massive, overwhelming force, the water is in need of another force to act upon it before it really matters. A stagnant lake is dead, rotting away, filled with corruption. But as the wind blows over the surface the water comes alive, become a terrible force of nature at times (the hurricanes) but often enough the subtle life of gentle waves that fluctuate depending upon the forces at work upon the water (winds, tides, motor boats, etc.). Just gazing upon Lake Michigan confirms the insights of Sufjan here, but having spent the summer on this great body every day makes it even more real, almost indescribable in scope. The water of Lake Michigan wants to be pushed around and ridden upon in grace and majesty. It craves the days when the sun burns bright upon it, gleaming and reflecting and glaring. It drives hard into the land, crashing against the rocks or beach and back upon itself because it is in this give and take motion that Lake Michigan is alive.
While the beauty of the rest of the song is indubitable, the meaning is more nebulous. For me, having read the first two stanzas as the joyful necessity of external forces to bring life upon Lake Michigan, I read the rest as describing the way this is for me. Just as the lake requires forces greater and smaller than itself to bring it to life, so does the human. The fishstone, the bottle, the kite, the hat; these are smaller items the bring great depth and beauty to life, just as the sailboat does for the lake. The sister, the kettle drum, and what the kite becomes, these are great forces that act upon the person. Sometimes these forces are terrible and disastrous, a necessary possibility when dealing with forces of such magnitude. But like the Lake, without these forces we become stagnant and lifeless.
Because Sufjan bleeds into these lyrics from the wonderful guitar/singing of guitar part, the second half of the song confirms that the first half represents a deep synergy that comes through subtle relationships. The lake to the sail boat, the brother to the sister, and ultimately in this case the person and the lake.