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May 8, 2017

Live Sufjan Stevens Gives Song New Life: Should Have Known Better on Carrie & Lowell Live

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Just last week, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens unexpectedly dropped a live version of his seventh album, Carrie & Lowell. After having relentlessly poured over the contents of that haunting, minimalistic tour-de-force all of two years ago – has it really been that long? – the sudden reincarnation of what is arguably Stevens’ greatest album invites loyal fans to re-examine the differences in cadence, nuance and theme that inevitably arise from hearing recorded familiarities performed live. But as much as I’d like to provide an exhaustive critique of the entire live album, one song in particular stands out for being both more potent than its studio counterpart, yet confidently similar in style. “Should Have Known Better,” Carrie & Lowell’s third track, was never my favorite of the original release, but when performed live, its thematic density becomes astoundingly apparent.

Patiently emerging in the wake of an impressive rendition of “Death with Dignity,” “Should Have Known Better” astutely encapsulates the likely self-therapeutic attitude that compelled Sufjan to write an album about his own mother. After all, many have interpreted the song to be about Stevens looking back at his original reaction to his mother’s passing, realizing that he had not allowed himself the proper opportunity to grieve, an emotional reluctance he identifies as a “black shroud/Holding down [his] feelings.” Indeed, recounting how a “demon had a spell on [him],” Sufjan sings of how this internal suppression of grief was “a pillar for [his] enemies” — a distressing phenomenon, as the song’s title communicates, about which he “should have known better.” It’s immensely saddening to hear of someone being “frightened by [their] feelings” in the wake of a parent’s passing, especially when the spectral memory of his mother’s face is a long-sought after respite, evident in Sufjan’s crooning: “Be my rest, be my fantasy.”

But despite the emotional turbulence that accompanies his belated awareness of grief’s necessity, “the remedy” that Sufjan appears to have been waiting for is tenderly suggested to have finally arrived in the introspection afforded by his songwriting. In both the recorded and live version of the song, at around the halfway point, the song noticeably assumes a more optimistic, celebratory tone. Indeed, he finds in his newly-acquired wisdom of how “Nothing can be changed/The past is still the past” an opportunity to turn away from obsessively imagining alternate histories — a “bridge to nowhere” — and to instead look to the beauty of the present, external world for the true remedy to “that empty feeling” he so movingly sings of.

He counsels himself to not “back down” and to “concentrate on seeing/The breakers in the bar, the neighbor’s greeting.” But more specific than the common humanity found in neighborly friendship, looking at his family now, Sufjan expresses adoration for his brother’s daughter, and “the beauty that she brings: illumination.” Unlike the original — in which the acoustic backing and ethereal chorus of distant voices emphasize Sufjan’s mournful, retrospective mindset — in the live version, we can better appreciate the intentional suddenness of the song’s pivot toward charged optimism. This is likely attributable to the more commanding drums missing from the original version, but more than that, perhaps it’s the sheer authenticity of hearing a raw, unadulterated live performance, albeit through a recorded medium.

Knowing what we know about Sufjan’s Christianity, one can’t help but notice the strikingly Christian connotations of “Should Have Known Better.” While most would describe Carrie & Lowell as, first and foremost, melancholic, in “Should Have Known Better” we find the themes of salvation, redemption and ultimate respite emerging in their clearest articulations of any Sufjan song. To hear one of America’s most gifted songwriters candidly acknowledge himself as “a fool in the fetter,” and look toward his existing family for nourishing humanity is a beautiful universalization of the Christianity that likely guides Sufjan’s artistry, despite his repeated insistence on a clear separation between his music and his faith. In the live version of “Should Have Known Better,” the repetition of “illumination” that concludes the piece, and hence dictates the song’s lasting effect, is overlaid upon a dense, sonic tapestry of synthesized notes to conjure the brief fragments of celestial beauty that can gleamed from our human relationships within an otherwise expanding, seemingly-indifferent cosmos. In simpler, less secular terms, it is in loving others, whether it be his neighbor or his brother’s daughter, that Sufjan finds God. As someone for whom the possibility of God remains an impenetrable, beguiling mystery, part of why I find Stevens’ music so rewarding is because of how potently it transmits both the confusion and wonder that equally arise from a recognition of the divine within the most troubled of personal narratives.

Ultimately, in “Should Have Known Better,” we discover a deeply-rewarding song that could arguably be labelled the quintessence of Carrie & Lowell, if not Sufjan’s entire oeuvre. While the lyrics are unchanged between its recorded and live incarnations, the latter affords greater prominence, through its mild sonic adjustments, to the lived catharsis and subsequent optimism of Sufjan’s matured mindset. Indeed, in its nuanced evincing of grief — an emotion previously-suppressed and then recognized for its constructive necessity — Stevens illustrates the unmalleable rigidness of the past, and identifies the infectious wonder to be found within a love for others in this very present.

Lorenzon Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com.

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