Monday, March 4, 2013

Happy Casimir Pulaski Day

I'm not much of a crier when it comes to music.  Maybe it's because I tend to not be a lyrics person, favoring the instrumentation of songs over the words.  Or maybe I'm just a heartless, soulless bastard.  Even if I do get a little teary-eyed, it's usually due more to outside circumstances than the actual content of the song.  ("Call Me Maybe" isn't sad, I was just having a bad day!)  However, the one song that makes me verklempt on a pretty consistent basis is Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day."

Illinois, Sufjan's most universally praised 2005 album, is a towering achievement; an ode to the storied Midwest state featuring a litany of brilliant and beautiful songs.  It's an album that's clearly the work of an artist at his peak and it's never more apparent than on "Casimir Pulaski Day," which starts with spare beauty and slowly builds to a cathartic conclusion.  The story of the song, loosely based on the real life of a friend of his, is about a girl who's dying of bone cancer.  Left with a terminal diagnosis, the speaker and everybody around him is left to watch her waste away.  There's such a helplessness and desperation that fills every line, which contain mundane but evocative details.  When tragedy strikes, you somehow become hyper-aware of everything -- an untucked shirt, untied shoes.  Yet at the same time, the sequence of time is a blur.  Sufjan recalls details in a frenzied order; one minute he's recollecting the two together in her room, the next he's recalling a moment where he breaks down in a bathroom.

Sufjan Stevens is a famously religious man and he laces his lyrics with Biblical references and a strong sense of faith.  From the outside, that can seem like a big turn-off, but what makes his songs so universal is that his faith could be substituted for any abstract form of love and also because his faith is not blind.  Some of his best songs are undercut with a quiet doubt that's niggling its way to the surface.  Doubt is indeed very prevalent in the most powerful passages of "Casimir Pulaski Day," as this event sweeps up the whole community, whose united efforts ultimately prove to be futile:

"Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens"

Eventually, his friend passes away, and Sufjan still holds strong sensory memory to the first Monday of March, when she finally goes.  When somebody you love dies, you're overcome with a flurry of emotions, winding and twisting inside of you.  Anger and doubt begin to settle in.  What kind of God would let this happen?, you ask.  "Casimir Pulaski Day" closes on my favorite passage, which perfectly encapsulates the doubt that the speaker feels when he's supposed to take comfort in his faith:

"All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes..."

The song lasts for another 90 seconds or so, with an instrumental coda.  In a way it feels like a funeral procession, its swelling horns contrasting Sufjan's defeated tone.  The song plays on, the senses linger, but she is gone.

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