Some of my favorite songs hurt too much to listen to very often. They send me plunging into those forlorn corners of memory that I spend most days avoiding. I try to remember these songs, play them, and appreciate what happens when I open the flood gates to total despair.
All year long, I keep an ongoing list of the music that really touches me. Even if I’ve only heard something once, it won’t be forgotten. So long as an album really strikes me, it remains on the list. It’s a gentle reminder of some of my best moments, light and dark.
I’ve realized this is a perfect way to keep track of the more sharply emotional music I encounter. When something makes me cry, striking a deep feeling that I can’t shake for hours, I don’t often want to dive right back in. It’s too much. The music I listen to while driving, for instance, doesn’t often involve a lot of harsh emotional places. Some albums don’t beg repeat plays, yet still wear a groove into my mind. The list helps me conjure those overwhelming artists for a reappraisal. It’s a practice that I find profoundly rewarding at the end of each year.
This year’s list included Sufjan Steven’s latest album, Carrie & Lowell. It’s a harrowing, autobiographical experience that’s eerily stripped down and direct, compared to his grand, overstuffed earlier albums. Lyrics trade heavy in both spiritual and personal tones, and despite the light atmosphere, the narrative settles uncomfortably on the heart. The deceptively simple collection of guitar and piano driven tunes are connected by a gauzy atmosphere, with blurred beginnings and endings. Tracks emerge from the hissing fog of memory, embracing and then leaving before they can be fully grasped.
This one, though. Fourth of July just cuts me right down. Before I’d even read the backstory of the album, named after Stevens’ estranged, recently late mother and stepfather, the lyrics rang painful. Structured as a conversation between Stevens and his mother on her deathbed, it’s full of aching verses that express the regret of a mostly missed relationship. Since she’d left when he was a child, Stevens was saying goodbye to a stranger that he nonetheless loved and forgave completely.
While my relationship with my own late mother couldn’t be more different, one verse felt immediately like a message from her. It struck like a knife through the ribs, sucking the air from my lungs. It felt like what my mom would have said if she’d known she wouldn’t see me again, that day I waved goodbye in the snow.
Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light
I have to admit: I shake just typing these words out. Some thoughts act like a portal, ripping me directly back to the moment I knew my mom was gone. There’s no fighting it; I just let it wash over and move on. Sufjan Stevens has captured this feeling more accurately than any contemporary musician I’ve heard, painting that exquisite combination of sadness, regret, acceptance, and dawning relief that forever trails after the black hole at the center of memory.
Just as Fourth of July is an emotionally cathartic listen, it’s equally as disruptive to write about. I’m staring down my blog while my sinuses disintegrate, tears falling. Just as profound depths of sadness allow for a unique bounce into tear-streaked laughter and relief, music like this warms a smile on my face as I reflect on it. Writing about why something nails my gut, poking at the connective tissue of emotion itself, is why I started writing about music itself.
When I find myself avoiding art that makes me truly feel on a visceral level, I try to puncture that safe bubble. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the nearly four years my mom has been gone, it’s that I need to let those darkest feelings out, at least occasionally. I might fall into an ugly, sobbing mess, but I need the perspective. I never appreciate the mundane bliss of everyday life without consistent reminders of what it’s like back at rock bottom.
Perhaps this is why Stevens ends the song with a refrain that feels more affirming than despairing. In a warmly gentle tone, he ushers us back toward the rest of our lives, repeating:
We’re all gonna die.