I used to be engaged enough with new music that I could compile a “year’s best” at the end of every year. I would relish the opportunity to compare my selections with MTV, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice’s famous Pazz + Jop poll. Now with a wife and two small children, a busy parish, and writing projects, I have no clue about most new music. Perhaps it is a characteristic of my life circumstances (instead of the fallback position to being simply too busy), but now I find myself more interested in “all time” lists than “year’s best” ones. I want to know whether what I have read, seen, or heard may be indispensable for my life until I die (or the Lord returns). This list is very small, and if it doesn’t go on this list, I have trouble justifying much time spent with it. After all, we’re simply going to miss most things, no matter how hard we try to keep up.
Sufjan Stevens has re-emerged in my life this year and re-ascended to near the top of my list of things that make life worth living. Or rather, he has re-emerged as a source of grace in a world that is sometimes sublime and sometimes downright disgusting. I was a big Sufjan fan about ten years ago. His early albums completely knocked me out, and then — to my discredit — I forgot about him for a while. I shoved my “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” shirt to the bottom of my drawer and moved on. But I was called back to my senses with the release of Carrie and Lowell, which I reviewed in the June 28, 2015 print edition of The Living Church. It is an extraordinary journey of a grieving heart that has spoken profoundly to my heart this year. I hope it is still in my rotation when, God willing, I go to my rest at a ripe old age.
Carrie and Lowell came out this year just as Lent began, and it inspired my thinking as the Church cycled forward as ever towards the inevitably scandalous death and Resurrection of the God-man. Sufjan sings in a near whisper, “There’s no shade in the shadow of the Cross.” His somber words and dark melodies preached to me in the midst of all the little difficulties that are inevitable partners with the joys of caring for a family and a congregation.
Sufjan’s musical offering laments the loss of his absentee mother. It is a love letter to a ghost, and a gracious letting-go of what might have (and should have) been different. The self that Sufjan presented to the world and to me in 2015 reminded me that I have a true, loveable self that God knows better than I do. Moreover, Carrie and Lowell reminded me throughout all the little (and big) heartbreaks of 2015 that God is our only hope in time of need. “Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me.”
Sufjan kept right on blessing me this year when my wife and I saw him in concert with some of our friends on November 6. It was an exhilarating night. We were shocked to realize that it was our first legitimate concert since we saw Ryan Adams in New Haven, CT — before ordination, before kids … a different life. Hearing live all these beautiful songs that had been my companions while driving, dish-washing and working out for the past several months was a tribute to the power of incarnation. The old routine was broken and life re-booted in something as simple as listening to a man with a guitar on a stage. How I took such things for granted in my “year’s best” phase of my younger life!
And now Sufjan is blessing my year right up to the very end. In the multi-year hiatus when I ignored his music, I had missed his astonishingly good Christmas albums. As we progressed into December and I began to grow tired of my son’s favorite “Raffi Holiday” music on our drives to school, it came to me as a gift from God to think about finding Sufjan instead. Everyone in the Petiprin household is hooked. As I prepared my sermon for Advent 3, his soft and somber “O come, O come, Emmanuel…” was running through my head. Now in these Christmas days, his tender “Joy to the World” has taken root.
Thank you, Sufjan Stevens, for being a vessel of God’s grace for me in the year of our Lord, 2015. I’ll try not to forget about you again, God being my helper.