Sufjan, soothe my soul

The last time I had a real cry – full on tears running down my face, nose clogged, eyes puffy – was about a year and a half ago while I was driving at about 80 miles per hour by the Tacoma mall on Interstate 5.

At first I didn’t know why I was crying. I’d just gotten off the phone with a source for my job as a reporter. The source had to reschedule our interview because a close family member had died unexpectedly and he needed time to mourn. It was very sad, but completely understandable, and also the sort of thing I’m used to.

However, I had actually called the source first, with the intention of letting him know that I needed to cancel the interview – mostly because I had packed my weekend schedule too tight and likely wouldn’t be able to make it. The whiplash of hearing what happened with him was disorienting.

Still, not ordinarily enough to make me cry. What clinched the situation was the fact that The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us by Sufjan Stevens had just come on my Spotify shuffle while I was driving, and I’ve mentally associated that song with a significant loss of my own.

So, OK, it all clicked in my head as Stevens crowed:

Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you the day we were born
My friend is gone, he ran away
I can tell you, I love him each day

I wondered later, what is it about that song that made me cry? It’s not one of Sufjan Stevens’ particularly depressing songs – it’s often interpreted as a coming-of-age story for a gay boy at summer camp. But it does have a key musical feature that links together most of my favorite music (as well as the music most likely to trigger emotion in me.) It uses warm, major-key instrumentation with lyrics that imply more despondent themes.

I like to think of this as happy on the outside, sad on the inside music. It’s the cathartic, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” or “Cat’s in the Cradle” type-sound. It’s the sort of music that is frequently played at memorials and funerals, because it asks you to chin up while also bringing out whatever rough feelings you had roiling in your heart when you started listening.

This sound winds its way through Sufjan Steven’s discography, as well as much of artists’ like Radiohead, Charles Bradley, Frightened Rabbit and Leon Bridges. Contrast it with a fantastic song that’s sad on the outside and sad on the inside: Hurt, Nine Inch Nails.

The album with this sound that breaks me the hardest is Hospice by The Antlers, and that’s not an unusual choice. I have seen many articles and Reddit comments about how the album (which uses the story of a terminally ill child as metaphor for a doomed relationship) can totally gut people emotionally.

You’d think such a depressing premise would make the whole album a slog to get through. But it’s actually quite bright instrumentally, sometimes manically so. Take a song like Bear and strip the lyrics away, and you’re left with a repeating nursery theme that blossoms into a runaway drum-guitar-horns riot at the end.

But reinsert the lyrics – which not-so-subtly describe a couple seeking an abortion and splitting up because of the trauma of the decision – and you have a song so overwhelmingly upsetting that it nearly becomes comically sad.

The happy on the outside, sad on the inside sound is flexible for me. With Hospice, the happy is a razor-thin skin on a massive orange made from pure suffering. With Sufjan Stevens, the happy is a thick batter of caramel on a small, sour crab apple.

But it’s the act of hiding that sadness underneath happiness – no matter how obvious the artists makes it that the happiness is an act – that transforms the sadness into something greater. The aching, discordant lyrics are the way you really feel, while the upbeat method of singing and instrumentation is the way you carry yourself from day-to-day. It feels far more real to the grieving processes than a simple ho-hum, gee I sure am sad sort of song.

When I first listened to Hospice, I connected the music with an unhealthy relationship I was in at the time, and I ended up bawling in bed for the hour or so it took to get through the whole thing. But that was the best cry I’ve ever had in my life, and I felt like I’d processed something important by going through it.

Hospice is a terrifyingly sad album, and it doesn’t give you any kind of a light at the end of the tunnel, or a final note of hope, to end on. But it, and music like it, validates the importance of having hope, even when it’s unclear whether that hope will amount to much. The furious chord strumming that kicks off the song Two is like an act of rebellion in the middle of the album’s most self destructive moment. It’s laughing at itself for being foolish enough to hope, but it is still hoping. It carries the song’s beat throughout like a mantra, like a rhythmic, foot tapping, “I’m going to be OK, I’m going to be OK, I’m going to be OK …”

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