I’ve been listening to this song constantly since its release earlier in the week — iTunes says I’m up to 30 plays and I’m sure on SoundCloud it’s more than that. It’s not that it’s an especially catchy tune or a Sufjan banger, but it sets a mellow melancholy mood with intricate plucking and multi-tracked vocals. The old Elliott Smith trick.
His upcoming album, Carrie & Lowell, is focused on telling the story of his parents and their marriage. They’re a counter-cultural pair — after all, they named their 3 children Sufjan, Marzuki and Djohariah — and that colors a lot of this song. With the references to drug use and the relaxed romance of laying beneath a meadowlark, you can imagine it as a tale of love in some kind of hippie commune in the 60s. It might not be too far off, if you remember this interview from the LA Times:
His parents were involved in a spiritual movement called Subud. Started in Indonesia by a man named Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, its main practice is the latihan kejiwaan, a spiritual exercise during which members claim to purify themselves and communicate with god. While Stevens balks at discussing the topic in depth, it’s clear that he has seen the extremes of ’60s indulgence, and understands the power and misuse of faith in a way that few ever will.
It’s always been Sufjan’s sideways entrance into Christianity, something he chose to settle on after bouncing around the fringe as a child, that made his interpretation of it so powerful. It was the sound of someone choosing the common Christianity and finding its nuances like a new arrival. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is its precursor — the meadowlark, the chase and the capsules give us comfort and protection, and there’s no reason to sit beneath the cross.