Saturday, February 9, 2019

Song of the Day #349 - Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, & James McAlister - Jupiter

Floundering star, failed that you are...

This is a live version but you can prolly track down the studio recording. It's off a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister. If you hadn't heard of it, I don't blame you... I'm a pretty die-hard Sufjan fanboy and it passed right under my radar. The reviews have been pretty mixed, too... lots of people find it kinda blown-out and overdramatic but hey, could those people really be Sufjan fans then??? lol. At the very least, it has this, which is a certifiable banger in the style of Age of Adz. He even busted out the autotune!!

One of Sufjan's great strengths has always been humanizing history, bringing out the intimate and universal from distant fact. Where he usually draws from Americana or Christianity, on "Jupiter" he has cast his net far further than before, both 1700 years into the past and 588 million kilometers away. As he is wont to do, Sufjan litters his lyrics with trivia, teaching us poetically about the god and the planet. Breaking down the meaning of each of these references would take way too long and, if given too much examination, they actually start to seem a little corny lol, like an amateurishly naive understanding of songwriting where you just say everything you can think of about the subject (OK, the planet: big red spot, failed star, protects us from asteroids with its gravitational well... then the god: uhh, Minerva popped out, people say "by Jove" because of him, transforms a lot, sure, sure, yeah, just gotta make this rhyme).

But when you pull the scope back and see the overall characterization he's constructing, it becomes pretty genius again lol. The lonely duty of the protector of all protectors, the god above all, is brought out as the key common theme... but then, it's also a failed star? Still just a gas giant at the mercy of our true star's gravity? And Jupiter too could not transcend his need for the faith of the Roman people... sure, it's crazy that some people still say "by Jove", but it's crazy because it remains when genuine faith in Jupiter has, let's say, diminished somewhat in the last dozen centuries. Jupiter, for all intents and purposes, is now a failed god, supplicated by the god of Abraham, his name now a stand-in for those too Christian to swear by their own god. A tragic story! And with all the talk of Lucifer, and the conflation of the whole "Sky father" trope, it seems that Sufjan, afaik a genuine Christian, feels it could repeat. Of course, in personifying planets and dead gods, there is a "real" hypothetical person that could analogously exist... a father figure, taking on supreme power with a protective duty, hoping for some sort of transcendental evolution as his reward, and meeting only failure... the true haunting lesson of Carrie and Lowell is to never discount the chance that Sufjan is actually speaking personally, especially when it comes to his family... hmm...

So we have a planet and Roman god being used as a stand-in for the Christian god and maybe Sufjan's dad or something. Sure. That's uh, pretty complex for something I said three paragraphs ago was a "banger". Well, uh, that's cause all this speculation into meaning doesn't really matter... at all... it's about the SOUND on this one. Omfg. I never thought we'd return to this style of 2010-Sufjan maximalism, that glorious era seven (wow) years ago where he, Kanye, and Joanna Newsom were all racing to make the most gigantic colossal albums that could still conceivably be called "pop" and they all turned out to be masterpieces. The Age of Adz is BACK, baby! Beat-driven and electro with orchestration just breathing in the background, giving it a haunting timelessness - Sufjan's collaborators here giving their own slight flourishes without ever breaking too far from the gravitational well of the main theme.

For the first four minutes, they seem content to develop this as the background for Sufjan's vocals, but then, omg... I had read some complaints in the comments section about this album having auto-tune, and my frustration with their regressive, close-minded unappreciation transformed into intense anticipation to the long-awaited followup to "Impossible Soul". I knew somehow just from the way the instrumentation backed down that it was coming, and I was right, and it felt so good to be right, but it was impossible to really prepare. The overwhelming power and yet simple catchiness of this melody! I sang it so much around the house that my roommate complained, lol. And the way it gives it to you three times: first as the hyper-minimal "drifting in space" robotics; then the stirringly human with full orchestration; then fully transcendent, the wholly instrumental bombastic finale. Ahh, brilliant. As brilliant as Jupiter itself, which Wikipedia tells me is sometimes bright enough that it casts shadows! By Jove!

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