Friday, February 24, 2012

"I Want to Be Well" by Sufjan Stevens

Since the lyrics to this song are not included in the album liner, I will be relying on transcriptions provided by songmeanings and The lyrics provided on these two webpages differ slightly, but I have adjusted the lyrics provided above to represent what I believe to be the most correct interpretation.

The theme for much of this album is derived from Stevens' perception of Royal Robertson's artwork. Lyrically, it would not be much of a stretch to assume that Stevens' theme extended to include a interpretation of Robertson, as that would strike a vein closer to what has propelled the lyrics of works like Come On! Feel The Illinoise!, his most widely recognized album. The bandcamp description of the album, however, tells us that the album has a "preoccupation with Sufjan himself. The album relinquishes the songwriter’s former story-telling techniques for more primal proclamations..." and that "Sufjan has stripped away the fabric of narrative artifice for a more primitive approach." We should assume, then, from an analytical standpoint, that the lyrics here focus on Stevens, even if they are tinged with influence from the works or life of Royal Robertson.

Before the lyrics begin, the title has already indicated an issue: the narrator is unwell. What, then, is the affliction? As with most Stevens lyrics, religion casts a shadow in the song, and, as indicated by the bandcamp description, the album focuses thematically on conflict. Perhaps, the conflict most accurately in focus here is Stevens' oft-admitted differentiation between spirituality and religion. A motif throughout his music, it comes to a head when Stevens declares, "I'm not fucking around."

Religion is often a topic of address in interviews with Stevens, and these lyrics serve as a rebuttal calling into question the importance of knowing or declaring one's religion in light of spirituality. He takes issue not only with those who would deride him for believing in an ideology so often at odds with science (highlighted with the ultimatum "pill or demon"), but also with fundamental Christians who would condemn him for his liberal interpretation of Christian doctrine.

"I don’t think the principles have changed....but I think the fundamentals, it’s really just about love," Stevens says in a 2010 interview with Jeremy Allen, published on The Quietus. But that doesn't mean that love is always easy ("And I forgive you even / As you choke me that way ", especially when your beliefs are attacked by two contesting parties who both view you as lukewarm ("They surround me, all sides"). Perhaps years of interviewers and fans being focused on Stevens' religious beliefs has worn him down, and he wants everyone to know he's "not fucking around" anymore. In the Quietus interview, after being asked about tolerance of other religions, Stevens asserts, "All I can account for is myself and my own belief and that’s a pretty tall order just to take account of myself. I can’t make any claims about other religions."

So what does all this mean for that crucial, first verse? Why does this song begin in media res, and seemingly so near a conclusion with that ominous opening? The verse is designed to bring to mind the irrelevance of accurate perception in regards to continuing existence. If you are isolated in a room where a bed rises, can you expect someone to believe this thing that you cannot show them? Does it matter if the bed rises if you are sleeping on it? or will you just continue sleeping? Does it matter if the people you are observing are photographs or real? Aren't the people in photographs real? If so, aren't real people photograph-ic? Does it matter if the story someone tells you actually happened or if it's all an exaggeration? If you weren't there, how is it provable? All of this points to a New Historical view of existence, specifically one in which existence should be treasured regardless of what conceptual schemas people place around it, because different perceptions will always form a parallax, regardless of the object's actual position. This is part of Stevens' plea to humanity: we cannot all agree, so let's not stress ourselves out about it. "I'll find sleep, I'll find peace / or in death you'll sleep with me." However existence ends is irrelevant, so let's focus on living happily now. The song is a declaration of resolve: I don't want to be upset, "I want to be well."

To think that I would die this time
Isolated in the room where the bed rises
Photographic ordinary people are everywhere
Extraordinary histories, ordinary histories, ordinary histories

I'll find sleep, I'll find peace
Or in death you'll sleep with me

To figure that it was my fault
Or so I've come to realize life is not about
Love with someone (ordinary people are everywhere)
Extraordinary people are, ordinary people are, ordinary people are

Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn
Illness is watching, waiting its turn

Did I go at it wrong?
Did I go intentionally to destroy me?
I'm suffering in noise I'm suffering in (touching ordinary body)
The burning from within the burning from with (ordinary hysteria)
I could not be at rest, I could not be at peace (extraordinary hysteria)

So do yourself a good, or do yourself a death from ordinary causes
Or do yourself a favor, or do yourself a death from ordinary causes

Illness likes to prey upon the lonely, prey upon the lonely
When it bites, oh, I would rather be dead, I would rather be fine

I want to be well, I want to be well
I want to be well, I want to be well

And I forgive you even
As you choke me that way
With the pill or demon
And the shrouded shalom
Under conversation
In tremendous weight of
A crowd of ages outside
Dressed for murder

I'm not fucking around
I'm not, I'm not, I'm not fucking around

And shall I kiss you even as you take me that way?
With the pill or demon as my body changes
Apparitions gone awry
They surround me, all sides
But from within I see it, unholy changes

I'm not fucking around
I'm not, I'm not, I'm not fucking around

No comments:

Post a Comment