July 13, 2017

CARRIER DOME:

What theologians and environmentalists can learn from Sufjan Stevens (Christine E. McCarthy, June 28, 2017, America)

[T]he independent record label 4AD released "Planetarium," a collaboration between singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, composer Nico Muhly, The National guitarist Bryce Dessner and percussionist James McAlister. While the conceit of the 17 tracks is a meditation on the major celestial bodies of the solar system, the album is very much about humanity. The cosmos is treated not so much as a natural wonder as a source for myths that serve the drama of the human search for meaning. From the title of the album (Planetarium, a human-made structure) to the sweeping interplay of classical instrumentation and mechanized sound, the listener encounters the majesty of space through human filters. The texture and variety of the album's soundscape creates liminal spaces between the sacred and the profane, the mundane and the cosmic, prompting us to consider how we finite creatures want to live in the face of the infinite.

As a theologian, whatever transcendent decentering the music accomplishes, I am most interested in Stevens's poetic lyrics, which fans have long admired for their rich layering of Christian, Greek and Roman mythic imagery over the writer's narrative storytelling and autobiography. In the final three-song sequence, the story of humanity is refracted through the light of our Anthropocene era. The instrumental "In the Beginning" leads into "Earth," the penultimate, 15-minute track at the heart of album's narrative arc. For all the meaning we cast onto the heavens, for all our "hallelujahs," Earth is where "living things refuse to offer/ Explanations of their worth/ We in turn avenge the Author/ With paranoia and prediction/ Exploration, competition/ Ceremony, inner anguish/ Lord, I pray for us." Humankind launches head first into labor and industry only to see too late the beauty of the Earth.

In the end, with "Mercury," the final track, people are as quicksilver as the Roman god. There is no set answer, no known future for the many crises of our own design. But we are reminded that each person is a "Carrier, friend" of our divine and earthly histories, so "Where do you run?"

Posted by at July 13, 2017 9:08 AM

  

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