Carrie & Lowell Live


Band: Sufjan Stevens
Album: Carrie & Lowell Live
Best song: “Fourth of July” is perfect, but “Should Have Known Better” is a close second.
Worst song:I guess I originally said “Drawn to the Blood” is the least strong song on the record, but I know think it to be “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

A lot of modern non-fundamentalist rabbis treat Jewish liturgy as self help tracts and eschew the strict reading of liturgy or scripture or the mountains of text from centuries of Jewish sages to produce something about the internal broken nature of humanity and of each of us (Sophia Zohar did it beautifully recently). Most progressive rabbis use liturgy as metaphorical toward politics or news or something; last year’s Tisha B’Av service I attended used the burning of the Temple as a metaphor for climate change (the earth is our metaphorical temple and we burned it). I don’t say that to criticize these readings, but rather to point out that these are the tacts du jour for modern American Judaism. Spinoza, arguably, got kicked the fuck out for less.

I suspect most of it is because modernity doesn’t always fit within the strictest reading of ancient (and some sorta recent) Jewish thought. Before we talk about the mitzvot of conquest and how that fits into Zionism (and how much it goes against modern American Jewish domestic politics), it’s important to remember that there are many mitzvot dealing specifically with slavery. Reading those mitzvot literally is probably not useful.

Each year of the paste five or so, I’ve uncovered another aspect of Judaism which with I relate or want to incorporate into my life. This past Sunday was Tisha B’Av, the culmination of three weeks of mourning , specifically of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the start of the exilic (diasporic, in my view) nature of the Jewish people.

As you can imagine, there is a fair amount of debate about the nature of Tisha B’Av in a world where the State of Israel exists. The reading of Eicha (commonly known in English as the Book of Lamentations) wails at Jerusalem’s destruction. It makes it hard to think about the Jews scattered about the nations when we have our own state that does, in fact, control Jerusalem. Whether this rule is just or right or even legal is immaterial (though I think it is mostly unjust and definitely illegal by international law), as Jews do rule over the city. Yes, we do not have a rebuilt third temple – there are many (not me) who want this specifically, but it has not yet happened – but the step of Jewish control is there. Which makes me wonder how I should approach Tisha B’Av as a day of mourning, as the saddest day on the calendar. I believe in the diaspora, in Elijah Benamozegh and in Maimonides and in Jonathan Sacks and in Shira Stutman and in Hillel Zeitlin and in Abraham Joshua Heschel. I definitely believe in them more than I believe in whatever’s going on over there now.

But, I tried to get sad on Tisha B’Av to mourn. I did it by listening to an extremely Christian man’s meditation on death.

In a way, I’m repeating an album for the first time, though I found a workaround in the live version of the record. like the first time I wrote about Carrie & Lowell, I’m mostly going to write about one song, as I played it over and over on Tisha B’Av and cried. And cried. And cried.

I think about death a lot. This is as much a product of idle time for my mind to meander as it is my own existential crises after my recent(ish) milestone birthday. I didn’t do a writing project like I did for my 30th birthday, as the subsequent decade has slowed me down significantly and my job has required more of me (a daily podcast is a lot of work). I also value my leisure time far more than I did then.

And that last point is operative in that my first thought is that I’ve wasted the last 10 years on leisure time, self-examination and spinning my wheels. The easiest milemarker is my peer group. My friends have children and are married and are property owners and are of prominent positions in their jobs.

I have a dog and a mood disorder.

“We’re all gonna die” is hardly a refrain that sounds profound, though it is. There is nothing more certain than death and decay. The reason “Fourth of July” is gorgeous and something on which to ruminate is that the song follows the sacred and the mundane. The post-mortem back-and-forth between Stevens and his dead mother are perfect and philosophical. The wrestling with death is inherent, the dealing with emotions paramount. It’s wrenching.

In a way, this should be written about George Harrison’s great work, though I was not in the right mindset at age 27 to think about death in any concrete way – this would change two months later when my closest friend died – and turning 40 has gotten me closer to that mindset. I hardly have anything profound to say now. The Tillamook Burn was a series of ravenous, destructive fires that engulfed a forest, but it also – in a very regenerative way – spurred a huge reforestation project in the state of Oregon (Carrie & Lowell‘s setting). The implication of Stevens’ reference of it – in his mother’s voice, I guess – is that with death brings life; Stevens even references this concept in “Should’ve Known Better” by looking at his niece’s shining face (“My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination”).

But. “We’re all gonna die.”

So much of American cultural reckoning with death can deal with regeneration, the circle of life and so on, but the inevitability of it is something with which I wrestle because of my own uselessness to the world. The YOLO-ness of it all is easy to dismiss, but we are here for a finite amount of time (“Make the most of your life, while it is rife/While it is light”) and there are no real do-overs (“And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best/Though it never felt right”).

And more than anything, “Fourth of July” is a song about missing someone. Stevens’ mother was not really in his life (Check out this interview for the back story), but her loss was very much his. The album is full of his struggle with these emotions, from his self-harm (“The Only Thing” recounts his penchant for “cross-hatch” self-injury) to his existential cries (“Drawn to the Blood” ends with the line “What did I do to deserve this now?/How did this happen?”).

(A tangent, because I don’t know where to put it: Stevens’ “black shroud” metaphor of depression is one with which I deeply identified; this, in fact, is where I want the most to not exist, in that my deep melancholy has encompassed everything to the point of emotional paralysis.)

I listened to it and I cried, not for the destruction of Jerusalem centuries ago nor for the scattering of Jews to the corners of the world (which, to me, is good), but rather for the loss of something that I didn’t know I had and still don’t know of its place in my life. Death isfinal and it doesn’t always make way for metaphorical reforestation; my close friend is still gone and I gained little in the way of wisdom or insight from his death. He’s just gone and I miss him. Some things just end.

“We’re all gonna die,” indeed.

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