April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
December 10, 2007
Two of my favorite albums are Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Sufjan Steven’s Seven Swans. Recorded more than thirty years apart, both albums are melancholy, contemplative, and preoccupied with the Apocalypse. And not the noisy, gaudy Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation or—heaven forbid—of the Left Behindseries. The Apocalypse-according-to-Nick and the Apocalypse-according-to-Sufjan are quieter affairs. It’s like the world is ending and there is a great divide in creation, but it’s all happening slowly, right under our noses or when our backs are turned. For years I didn’t even know the song Pink Moon was about the Apocalypse. I thought the lyrics were, “And all of you who stand so tall / Pink Moon’s gonna get you home,” a sentiment that fit the song’s sweet melody and the theme of the Volkswagen commercial that kicked off Nick’s posthumous comeback. When I realized what the lyrics really were, I felt like I’d grabbed a knife by the wrong end:
I saw it written and I saw it say,
A pink moon is on its way,
And all of you who stand so tall
A pink moon is gonna get you all.
I guess advertising execs don’t read liner notes either, but who can blame them? Pink Moon is a condemnation posing as a lullaby. It’s a stark statement about the inevitability of death that sells cars. It’s a contradiction, but it’s exactly this kind of contradiction that makes Nick’s music great. The world didn’t need another saccharine troubadour, not even back in 1971. We need truth and beauty, and what the realists and the pessimists don’t understand, but Nick and Sufjan do, is that truth is beauty, even when it’s terrifying.
Instead of a red moon, Nick gives us a pink moon, and instead of seven angels, Sufjan gives us seven swans. But Nick never addresses the God of his Apocalypse (or at least not obviously so) whereas with All the Trees of the Field, Sufjan opens Seven Swans with a quiet prayer, which culminates in the question, “And will I be invited to the sound / And will I be a part of what you’ve made?” Those lines so perfectly describe the religious terror I felt as a boy. But even in the midst of my worst doubt, I never reached a point where I couldn’t pray. The person of Christ has always been real to me. Christians would say that this is because I actually do know Christ. Freud would say I invented God because I can’t face death. Either way, the fact is I don’t feel capable of rejecting the person of Christ, and like Sufjan, I express my doubts to God directly, in one sense confident that he hears me and in another sense plagued by doubt. These contradictions are everywhere when we approach the Apocalypse. The lyrics of the song describe all of creation—the trees and the hills—coming together in one presumably deafening chorus of praise, but the song itself is quiet, repetitive, almost hypnotic. I’m reminded of nothing more than Lewis’ “upstairs indoor silences.” I think of rain hitting the window panes of my childhood bedroom.
There is a track on Pink Moon named Horn, which has no lyrics and is only one minute and twenty-one seconds long. Nick picks out a few slow notes, and it’s really that simple. I’ve listened to this track hundreds of times, because I love the image the music puts in my mind. I see an angel, drawn in the style of the personified winds on the edges of old maps, half emerging from a cloud with a long, thin trumpet, blasting out the Apocalypse. But I can’t hear the trumpet blast, because even in my imagination the angel is only a drawing, and drawings are silent. Horn itself is something between a trumpet blast and silence.
There’s a connection between melancholy music and the Apocalypse. Melancholy music takes something sad and turns it into something beautiful. This is a strategy for dealing with suffering, and—I believe—one of the more successful answers to the problem of pain. If suffering can be made into truth, wisdom, beauty, and ultimately even joy, then suffering has a purpose. The Apocalypse is also a creative process that takes suffering as material and turns it into joy. There is destruction on one side of the coin and creation on the other. It’s a painful recreation—a purging, a pruning. The greatest visual representation of the Apocalypse I know is Michelangelo’s painting The Last Judgment. Christ is in the center with his right hand raised and his left hand lowered. He looks like a conductor of music in the eye of a hurricane. To his right, souls are rising out of the earth and into Heaven, and to his left, souls are falling into Hell. The feeling I have when I listen to these albums is that I’m Mary in The Last Judgment, leaning towards Christ in the calm center of the universe, torn between poles of joy and terror. This intense ambivalence to the Apocalypse is what gives the painting its power. The scene wouldn’t be so awful if we could think of it as pure evil and file it away with the other horrors of history, and it wouldn’t be so wonderful if it were just another vision of a paradise without pain. Seeing the circle completed is what makes the Apocalypse so full and so empty at the same time, so close to the trembling center of things.
He Woke Me Up Again is Sufjan’s temporary escape from that melancholy center and the most purely joyful song on either album. Your father doesn’t wake you up in the morning if you’re not wanted. The song is about finding yourself in Heaven and having every doubt and fear behind you, but it’s a mere two minutes and forty-three seconds of bliss, because the feeling just isn’t sustainable. The entire album could have never been named He Woke Me Up Again, not if it was going to be great. The song is true, but we have to pay for the alleluias somehow. Imagining a life without pain isn’t enough, because we need to deal with the pain we’re experiencing now.
Nick’s solution is less of a Christian escape from fallen creation than a Romantic transcendence, but it is apocalyptic nonetheless. In From the Morning, Nick ends his album with the words:
But now we rise and we are everywhere.
And now we rise from the ground.
And see she flies and she is everywhere.
And see she flies all around.
So look, see the sights,
The endless summer nights,
And go play the game that you learned from the morning.
There is no fear of rejection here. It’s as if the Christian God doesn’t exist, and nature resurrects itself without judgment. But if the resurrected self is everywhere, then it’s in every sad and joyful place at the same time. The resurrection of From the Morning doesn’t reverse or negate the death of Pink Moon. Both life and death, joy and pain, beginnings and endings coexist in tension with each other, justifying each other, and that’s the essence of the Apocalypse. But for Nick, the Apocalypse continues as a game that we keep on playing, with a death every evening and a resurrection every morning. As a Christian, Sufjan’s Apocalypse has a wider scope and the stakes are higher. Death is really death, life is really life, Heaven and Hell are final, and to see both at the same time is to experience something broader than Nick’s game. Seven Swans is like a sequel to Pink Moon that builds on Nick’s themes and takes us beyond the relatively comfortable, spherical confines of his album.
I see the song Seven Swans as a kind of musical thesis statement for Sufjan’s argument. The literal source material for the lyrics is unimportant. Sufjan tells different stories to explain the song on different nights. Sometimes his dad is burning trash in the backyard and sometimes the entire house burns down. In the end he always sees seven swans, but sometimes the swans are real and sometimes they’re made of smoke. I like the story in which the swans are made of smoke, because it makes the metaphor more tangible. The fire is the fire of Hell and miraculously, an image of hope comes from the flames. This transformation makes no sense on the surface. Pain should not be material for joy, but somehow the metamorphosis is right there in the music. At the point in the song closest to Hell, Sufjan sings:
He will take you.
If you run,
He will chase you,
Because he is the Lord.
And when he sings “Lord,” he holds the falsetto note long enough for us to feel his terror. I find it such a relief to let myself feel that terror. I spend so much time trying to imagine my faith from the outside, wondering what other people would think of me if they knew what I believed, trying to justify or explain away pain and Hell to them and to myself. It’s a weight off my shoulders to hear Sufjan sing that note, because the truth is, I can’t justify the ways of God to men. I can’t even justify the ways of God to myself. Christianity is terrifying. We believe in an omnipotent being who is perfect and somehow both in the world and above the world at the same time. And we can take no refuge in the idea that he’d ignore us. He became one of us. He suffered with us. He’s the perfect judge, we’re all guilty and we could never escape his interest, because he is the Lord. Just allowing myself to feel that terror for a moment dislodges something in my mind. I don’t have to explain God. I can’t explain God.
When the world looks at Christianity in horror, they’re right. A person can’t accept Christ by watering down the Gospel until it’s palatable, because a palatable Gospel explains nothing and has no power. Death is real, and the only way through it—if there is a way through it—has to be beyond explanation, because every explanation in this world is material and ends in death. Pink Moon, the album, describes nature redeeming itself, which is a beautiful idea, but it has a limit. Nature redeemed by nature is still nature. Seven Swans describes a God who has the power to redeem the world only by destroying it, and by destroying it, destroys its limits and recreates it as something truly new. But we can’t imagine this new world. We can only feel it.
The resolution of the song Seven Swans is not a logical or a theological argument, but rather a musical and an emotional argument. Sufjan repeats, “He is the Lord,” seven times, and on the fifth, just when we can’t stand it any longer, he begins singing, “Seven swans, seven swans, seven swans,” and the two images, the judge and destroyer on one side and seven swans and the creator on the other, complete each other, and now the terror is complicated by beauty and the beauty is complicated by terror.
I’m not comfortable with how this song makes me feel. The emotions aren’t neat and they’re not easy, but they feel true to me. And then the album ends withThe Transfiguration and somehow my faith is still intact.
Andy Barnes lives with his wife in Washington DC, where he works for a nonprofit. He enjoys reading and listening to music.