I first discovered Sufjan Stevens’s music my sophomore year of high school, a time when I listened to a lot of devastatingly sad music. Listening to artists’ emotions helped me realize and accept my own teenage feelings, leading me to reflect on my emotions from the past. Being a kid with an anxiety disorder who struggled to have moments of peace had caused me to avoid thinking about my childhood, afraid of rehashing my pain. Stevens’s nostalgic takes on his childhood brought me a sense of comfort and validation.
Born in Detroit and raised in Petoskey, Mich., Stevens’s stories felt intensely relevant to my own life — ranging from his religious trauma to the geographic beauty of Michigan. I, too, spent my formative years in small-town Michigan and grappled with a deeply religious upbringing. Most importantly, Stevens’s music taught me about processing grief and landing at a nuanced and peaceful interpretation of the past.
Stevens is fully aware of the immense personal impact of his work. In an interview with Pitchfork, Stevens said he turns his personal life into music in an attempt to dissect “the significance of these experiences.”
Storytelling has always been a valuable tool in the arts, but Stevens is uniquely raw in his narratives about his personal life. His acclaimed 2015 album Carrie & Lowell doesn’t shy from the immense emotion behind his work — its cover art is an image of Stevens’s estranged mother, and the opening track is titled “Death with Dignity.” Even in his earlier work like Seven Swans, he explores his sexuality and its relationship to his Christian religion. Stevens’s use of Bible stories, woven into narratives about love and heartbreak, gives his melancholy tracks a certain reflective and insightful quality into the complex emotions of grief.
For me, the most meaningful motifs in Stevens’s storytelling have been religion, nature and grief. Stevens is open about his Christian faith, and while he has never publicly confirmed his sexuality, his songs make numerous references to non-heteronormativity within romantic relationships.
As someone who was raised religious but ended up leaving the church due to discomfort with certain problematic practices, Stevens’s music gave me a new perspective on what Christianity can be. His mixing of religious imagery in his songs with references to sexuality creates a unique sense of connection between the two rather mysterious topics. Stevens sings “Lord I no longer believe” on his most popular track “Mystery of Love,” written for Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film “Call Me By Your Name.” The ongoing questioning of his religion as he sings about the discovery of his sexuality creates a space for doubt and nuance within his theology, something that was never afforded to me.
While Stevens’s music is far from evangelical, its delicate narrative of struggling with religion and identity forced me to see my religious past as an important part of my development, not something to be ignored. It brings meaning to the many, many people (especially LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people) who are trying to make peace with the positive morals religion taught them, along with the condemnation and alienation they faced due to their social identities.
Another particularly resonant aspect of Stevens’s music is his consistent use of nature and geography as touchstones for remembering his childhood. In 2003, long before he found popularity with his album Illinois, Stevens released Michigan, an album full of songs dedicated to his home state. Songs like “Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie” detail his childhood memories of standing on the bluffs of Sleeping Bear Dunes in Empire, Mich. Hearing lyrics about running to the top of the dunes and being scared while looking over the lake takes me back to moments from my own childhood with almost photographic clarity.
Stevens fosters the delicate balance between positive childhood nostalgia and reckoning with the way his childhood traumatized him. In my own life, creating this space has allowed for a fuller understanding of the course of my life, one where I refuse to ignore the nuance of my upbringing. And if you’re not from Michigan, don’t worry, Stevens has an album called Illinois. Even for listeners who aren’t at all familiar with the geographic locations Stevens details, his descriptions of his upbringing are vivid and bring out a universal nostalgia.
Stevens’s immense grief is undeniable in his music. Although most noticeable in his later work, he has mourned the injustice of the world and the trauma in his past since the beginning of his career. In Michigan, the track “Flint (For the Underpaid and Unemployed)” addresses the devastation that the city experienced with the fall of the auto industry. His grief for the lost opportunity to “use my hands to use my heart” is a fascinating commentary on the way emotional value is tied to labor under capitalism.
On “Casimir Pulaski Day,” he grieves the loss of a loved one to cancer, detailing their last days together and capturing the beauty of life’s mundanity. The line “the complications you could do without, when I kissed you on the mouth,” along with the melancholy guitar track in the background, evokes immense grief of the loss of love.
And Carrie & Lowell, as previously mentioned, is a meditation on grappling with the death of a loved one. The “Death with Dignity” lyric “I forgive you Mother, I can hear you and I long to be near you” epitomizes Stevens’s meaningful reflections on his tumultuous childhood. His acceptance of the past, along with his reflection on the meaning of life and death, allow beauty to be recognized in some of the harshest realities of life.
For most people, thinking about unfortunate events in our distant pasts doesn’t seem particularly productive or enjoyable. But for someone like me, who grew up with an intense anxiety disorder exacerbated by my religious environment, the opportunity to reflect on the past with nuance is welcome. I’ve realized that it’s my personal choice to reflect on my upbringing, and it’s brought me clarity with who I am today and forgiveness for those who hurt me.
For me, Sufjan Stevens’s music was a catalyst in starting this work, from his meditations on religion, nature and grief to his exploration of his own childhood’s complexities. Listening to Stevens doesn’t make me feel sad; it makes me feel seen. So go enjoy some Carrie & Lowell, whenever you’re ready for it.
Daily Arts Contributor Madeline Poupard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.