The music industry thrives on two basic principles. Love exists, and love is broken. Countless pop artists have exploited the fleeting nature of their personal relationships, writing cloying love songs today and fiery breakup anthems tomorrow. What we rarely hear about in pop music are songs about the loneliness that comes in a world where love never lasts.
What Sufjan and Carrie needed was not perfect love or idealistic love, but a love in the midst of brokenness.On his latest record Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’s painfully earnest ”All of Me Wants All of You” is the sound of a man fatigued by broken love. Stevens’s relationship with his mother was like a hookup/breakup cycle on repeat, seeing her for a few intense days or weeks at a time only to lose her again for months and years. He wonders whether his mother’s terminal cancer is a blessing or a curse, quietly wavering, “Shall we beat it or celebrate it?” It’s the same question he asked as a child every time his mother abandoned him again. By her bedside in the waning moments of her life, he sings, “On the sheet I see your horizon.” Even as he hugs her, “I’m just a ghost you walk right through.” Death slowly wrests the mother he wanted to love from his grasp one last time. Something in his soul won’t let him let go. Stevens understands that his turmoil is not unique but universal: All love is broken, and yet our souls long for other souls.
Confusion about the nature of “All of Me Wants All of You” has arisen surrounding a mysterious allusion in the first verse: “Manelich, I feel so used.” Some have posited this is a moniker for a distant male lover. This obscure reference is a key element in understanding how Stevens sees his relationship with his mother Carrie. Most importantly, Stevens sees himself as Manelich, a man who must choose to love in the midst of terrible brokenness or give up altogether.
Stevens’s Manelich is found in the Catalan play Terra Baixa (Marta of the Lowlands) written by Àngel Guimerà in 1896. He is a goat shepherd, an innocent man who has spends most of his life dwelling on the mountainside. His contented peace is disrupted by Sebastian, his master, who proposes that he descend from the mountain into the lowlands to become the miller by marrying the peasant girl Marta. With rapture, Manelich bursts into the village in a scene reminiscent of Buddy the Elf’s “I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!”
Manelich’s first experience with love is free and innocent. He assumes love will be pure, his bride Marta will be spotless and beautiful, and his marriage will remain unpolluted. As Manelich makes his jubilant entrance, the servants mock him behind his back for his naïveté. A few pity him, sighing, “Poor Manelich!” The exuberant goat-keeper does not realize he is a goat being prodded along by the menacing staff of Sebastian. He is too enthralled with love to notice the stifled chortles and the red faces around him.
In Act I, Manelich represents the childlike innocence of first love. Sufjan Stevens’s childhood years were in many ways like Manelich’s early experience. We’ve seen the story countless times. It is the boy who waits for the return of an absentee parent like an eager puppy. It is the son too innocent to realize the mother he loves is not the shining statuette he idolizes. It is the child who has not come of age; his love is still idealistic, blind, and impossible.
In the second act, Manelich comes to the slow realization that love is different from what he had thought. Marta remains cold and unfeeling toward him, and she refuses to welcome him to their marital bed. He spends his nights sitting outside her door wondering what has gone wrong. The cynical townspeople watch as the shepherd with childlike innocence becomes a man crushed by the world. Everyone except Manelich knew that his marriage was a sham. Sebastian had arranged the union to cover up his own predatory relationship with tender Marta. Manelich had been lured away from his blissful life tending his beloved goats to become a tool in the hand of his cruel master.
As Manelich learns more and more of the truth, the villagers begin to pity him. Their haughty laughter turns to quiet tears. The joke is actually on them. Manelich’s painful experience reminds them all over again that love is never simple, plain, and joyful. In a broken world, love, too, is broken. Stevens sees himself as the Manelich of the world. His childlike love for his mother was foolish. Carrie pushed him away and remained distantly absent—a mere outline of a shadow. She is Marta of the Lowlands—a woman broken by the world. His mother was a victim of her circumstances and her own vices, abused by the world. It is possible that, like Marta, she shielded herself from the innocent love of another because it reminded her of the innocence that was stolen from her.
Once Manelich realizes that his marriage is a farce, he ponders his next move. Perhaps he ought to celebrate the end of his foolish idealism and retreat to the mountains with his goats. Perhaps he should remain to fight for his beloved Marta, despite the challenges. Stevens struggles with this same predicament: “Shall we beat this or celebrate it?” Is love ever worthwhile in a world where everyone is broken and love is never the rosy thing that it first appears to be? Perhaps the realization that love never remains unstained ought to be celebrated, and all hope for true love abandoned.
And yet, Stevens ends with the gentle echoing of the song’s title, “All of me wants all of you…” Despite the harsh realities of the world and the brokenness of those we love, there is no getting over the fact that our souls long to know and be completely known by others. Manelich’s heart beats with this same desire, and he finishes Act III by slaying Sebastian, the wolf who has been preying on Marta, and absconding with his bride to the mountains.
Marta is a woman who has been taught by years of cold and harsh abuse that love does not exist. To her, love is a thin veneer used to cover over selfish motives and wicked abuses. Manelich’s willingness to pursue Marta in her brokenness is her first experience of actual love. In fact, she assumes Manelich has some hidden motive. It seems impossible that anyone would love her despite her brokenness. She ultimately realizes that what seemed impossible is a reality: Manelich wants all of her and wants to be all hers.
Stevens’s struggle is Manelich’s struggle, and Manelich’s struggle is our struggle. It is the coming of age of love. Whether between lovers, a brother and a sister, or a son and his mother, love between two individuals requires the soft echo, “All of me wants all of you.” Even when “the landscape changed my point of view” and “now all of me thinks less of you,” the echo must still remain: “All of me wants all of you…” What Sufjan and Carrie needed was not perfect love or idealistic love, but a love in the midst of brokenness—a love that is not willing to walk away even when we see each other’s sin and scars.
The love that throbs in Stevens’s soul as “All of Me Wants All of You” comes to a quiet finish can only come from one source: “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love is only able to triumph through brokenness if we are first loved by God. In many ways, Manelich the simple shepherd is a picture of Jesus. He came down from the mountain to be heart-broken, and though his bride remained distant and unwilling to believe that unconditional love could actually exist, he slew the worldly wolf who ravaged her every night. In the shadow of his love, the Church’s hope is rekindled. In a world where each of us is a crestfallen Manelich or an ashamed Marta, Christ’s cross demonstrates what it means to say, “All of me wants all of you…”