Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
I never heard her pray.
She didn’t cuss.
. . .
She didn’t interfere the time Dad beat the breath out of me for something I didn’t do.
Those are just three of the vivid memories recorded by author Laura Brown in her stunning essay “Fifty Things About My Mother.”
Since I first read it a year ago Brown’s essay has haunted me. In it, she stacks up poignant, piercing, personal remembrances of a mother-daughter relationship that could inspire a whole memoir. (In fact, it sparked Brown’s book Everything That Makes You Mom.)
It will spur you to reflect upon your relationship with your own mother, and how that has shaped your head, heart, and soul. And what better time than now, in this month leading up to Mother’s Day?
Right about the time I read Brown’s essay, I heard St. Vincent open a song with this jarring announcement: “I prefer your love to Jesus.” It quickly became clear that she wasn’t singing to her audience: She was singing to her mother, thanking her for her tenderness, guidance, and example.
I admit, the line made me uncomfortable when I first heard it. As a Christian, I’m conditioned to take offense whenever anybody suggests they’ve found anything more fulfilling than Jesus’ sacrificial, reconciling love.
But listen to the rest of the song. Hear how it favors immediate shows of physical intimacy, of personal relationship, of presence. The distant sun sets “careless,” but the singer finds forgiveness and sustenance in her mother’s open arms. How many have come to the church in hopes of finding solace, and found—in believers’ disinterest, indifference, judgmental spirit, and social-networking expressions of sanctimony and hatred—anything but generosity, empathy, and love? How many have then turned elsewhere?
By the grace of God, I have known a rare exception to the rule. I grew up with a strong faith in the unconditional, intimate love of God primarily because I also grew up blessed with the unconditional, intimate love of my faithful mother and father, who gave me persuasive evidence of true love’s possibility. As I grow older and look around to find friends and acquaintances struggling in their faith, I can almost always see an unnervingly direct relationship between what they believe about God and what they have experienced in their families.
Annie Clark—the artist publicly known as St. Vincent—wrote “I Prefer Your Love” after a time when her mother was ill. The experience shook her, as she confessed in an All Songs Considered interview. Elsewhere (in an NME interview), she said, “You get to a point where you realize that you can lose them. Or you already have. And like . . . crossing some precipice into—it’s so unsexy, but—adulthood.”
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Books could also be written about how Sufjan Stevens was shaped by the love of his mother Carrie—or the lack of it.
In a way, books are being written about her: Just try to keep up with the number of blogs, music reviews, and interviews—all that mention her—published in the two months since the release of Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell.
If you don’t know the story already, here’s a quick summary: Married young, Carrie and her husband Rasjid—who was part of an Indonesian religious movement called Subud—quickly brought four children into the world. After seven years of marriage, when her son Sufjan was only a year old, Carrie abandoned the family without any sign she would stay in touch. Rasjid remarried, and Sufjan grew up moving around Michigan with his father and stepmother. He eventually caught up with Carrie in Eugene, Oregon, where he struggled to relate to her. But he bonded powerfully with Carrie’s second husband, Lowell Brams, and with the music that Lowell loved—including the music of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake, to which Stevens’ music has often been compared. Later, Lowell and Sufjan would cofound the Asthmatic Kitty label.
Stevens has used his deep, troubled feelings and memories of his mother as fodder for Carrie & Lowell. In an interview with Dave Eggers for The Guardian, Sufjan said, “I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it. . . . But the writing and recording wasn’t the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness.”
That darkness roils throughout the album, perhaps nowhere more viscerally than in the troubled confession “The Only Thing.”
In a thorough, revealing interview with Ryan Dombal for Pitchfork, Stevens spoke of “the emotional ramifications and repercussions that occurred for months and months following her death. It nearly destroyed me, because I still couldn’t make sense out of it. In writing about it on this album, I was in pursuit of meaning, of justice, of reconciliation.”
In ‘The Only Thing,” the singer reflects on a night when he nearly drives his car into a canyon beneath—tellingly—the sight of the Perseus constellation, Perseus being most notorious for beheading Medusa. Yeah, there’s a lot of anger in this record. Anger, confusion, and unfathomable grief.
“Do I care if I survive this?” he sings, and that’s not the starkest reference to the dark allure of suicide. He speaks of “the only things that keeps me from cutting my arm / Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark. . . ..” He asks, “How do I live with your ghost?” He offers no answers, only more questions:
Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow. . .
So what is “the only thing” that saved him? Two verses suggest it has something to do with “signs and wonders,” with a sense of something—or someone—beyond the veil, sending him messages and mysterious sensations of comfort. He points to “God’s grace” as the answer. That’s a source of solace that would seem too easy, too general, too sentimental, if it weren’t for how he ties it to something strangely personal and specific—namely, the “sea lion caves” of the Oregon Coast. Did Carrie accompany him to that subterranean tourist attraction? Or did he carry his grief there later and find some mysterious solace there? We don’t know. We can only assume that these, along with other references to Oregon territories throughout the record, represent a map of his emotional struggles to reconcile the loving mother that he needed with the broken mother he was given.
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Carrie & Lowell is a record born of heartbreak and unanswered questions, grounded in honesty and autobiographical specifics. In its poetry and melancholic melodies, it is sure to remain a lasting and meaningful work of art, for it invites us to engage its questions and curious imagery rather than merely accept proclamations and explanations. Art lives only when an individual lights the kindling that the artist has arranged and then labors to stir up the flames of revelation. By doing the hard work of listening, contemplating, and interpreting what is given, we can experience empathy for the singer, companionship in his pain, and solace through the beauty and mystery he discovers.
We might also come to appreciate our own parents—their successes, their failures, their sacrifices, their scars—through these stories. Moreover, we might come to understand more just how much our own adult decisions make a difference for the children who depend on us for guidance and love.
I do not want to be presumptuous. But I cannot help but wonder if, whether she knows it or not, Annie Clark might not have had the most direct encounter with God’s love that she will have in this life through her relationship with her mother. Perhaps, at this point in her life, she has experienced the sublime most powerfully through a maternal vocabulary of love. How many Catholics have I encountered who say they were drawn to Christian faith through the allure of Mary, a maternal grace they needed and had not found in this world?
Sometimes God’s love reaches in ways we cannot trace. Jesus himself often drew people to God by showing them love and generosity even when they did not know his identity. Surely he feels compassion for those whose experiences with His Church have been off-putting, insulting, even alienating. Surely he looks for other ways to love them. Surely he gives generously through the gestures of those who, while they may not speak the vocabulary of the church, are nevertheless made in God’s image, and who demonstrate love better than those who merely declare it.
I admit that St. Vincent’s “I Prefer Your Love” pains me, particularly because it highlights the failures of the Church to convey the intimacy into which Jesus invites us. And that is precisely why I’m grateful for her powerful song.
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Mothers—their counsel, their example, their presence, and their absence. Who can measure how much influence they have over our lives, our work, our creative expression?
What are other great songs inspired by mothers you’ve appreciated? Post them in a Comment here, and include a link if you can find one.