Saturday, December 14, 2013

Wasps and Zombies/Sufjan Stevens: Illinois Tracks Fifteen to Eighteen

Part of A Series: Route 66: Sufjan Stevens: Illinois
To View the whole series as one LONG post CLICK HERE

Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois/Sufjan Stevens: Illinois Track One:

Predatory Wasp
Predatory Wasp

As we approach the end of Sufjan Stevens Illinois, we have noticed a theme of dissolution and failed dreams. These are generally tempered by hope and redemption in some form. The next track we explore on the album, "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" is particularly open for interpretation. It is a story told in reflection, on a cold night a wasp appears on the wall that takes the narrators memories back to an experience at summer camp in childhood. Here are the lyrics from

Thinking outrageously, I write in cursive
I hide in my bed with the lights on the floor
Wearing three layers of coats and leg warmers
I see my own breath on the face of the door

Oh, I am not quite sleeping
Oh, I am fast in bed
There on the wall in the bedroom creeping
I see a wasp with her wings outstretched

North of Savanna we swim in the Palisades
I come out wearing my brother's red hat
There on his shoulder my best friend is bit seven times
He runs washing his face in his hands

Oh, how I meant to tease him
Oh, how I meant no harm
Touching his back with my hand, I kiss him
I see the wasp on the length of my arm

Oh great sights upon this state, hallelu–
Wonders bright, and rivers, lake, hallelu–
Trail of Tears and Horseshoe Lake, hallelu–
Trusting things beyond mistake, hallelu–

We were in love, we were in love
Palisades, Palisades
I can wait, I can wait

I can't explain the state that I'm in
The state of my heart, he was my best friend
Into the car, from the backseat
Oh, admiration in falling asleep
All of my powers, day after day
I can tell you, we swaggered and swayed
Deep in the tower, the prairies below
I can tell you, the telling gets old
Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you the day we were born
My friend is gone, he ran away
I can tell you, I love him each day
Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged
I can tell you, I love him each day
Terrible sting and terrible storm
I can tell you

The song, on its surface seems to be another story of how intentions like teasing can lead to unexppected consequences. The friend is stung by the wasp, teasing ensues followed by crying followed by a kiss which causes the friend to freak out and run away. Thus we have loss, both of a potential for a loving relationship as well as for the innocence of a kiss. 

The song is full of Christian tie-ins. WASP indicates religion.  Coming out of the water could be symbolic for baptism. The friend is stung seven times. Seven is a recurring symbolic number in the Bible. The turning point in the story is a kiss. Jesus was betrayed by a kiss.

The comments on featured a lively debate. Is the narrator Judas, a female, a gay male, Sufjan or a character? Was the kiss innocent or romantic? When I look at the depth of craftsmanship to be found on this album, and I consider his themes of assumptions and disappointments, I  wonder if he could be making a meta statement to this listener, who has followed along to the point and constructed assumptions about the narrator. Perhaps he is making a statement that those assumptions could be flawed. Here's what I mean. If you had been listening with the assumption that the album was narrated by a Christian man, then the kiss becomes a gay kiss and challenges your assumptions. Or if the kiss was made by a woman, then perhaps you have been wrong in assuming the narrator of the album was a man. I'm not sure if I am explaining the notion clearly or whether it is a flawed assumption in itself. As I said when I started exploring this album, many of these songs will require aging and repeated listens to really understand, this seems to be one of them.

Chicago Zombies
Chicago Zombies
After such a personal sound Stevens pulls back yet again for a song that is about the state, "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!". The theme of loss continues as the song is largely a list of things that have faded from glory or passed away. Illinois connections abound and many once prosperous cities have succombed to the industrial decay that has hit the midwest so hard. Stevens personifies these cities as zombies, rising from the dead, To be sustained by the Land of God, which is what he is calling Illinois, in contrast to its more common name Land Of Lincoln. The Land of God is the afterlife, which zombies will never reach.  That would leave these once prosperous towns holding on, but never really dieing at the same time never really living. Yet they are part of the whole, "Hold your tongue and don't divide us." The Land of God emerges as a benediction and a prayer for the state and it "zombies". for lyrics:

Ring the bell and call or write us
Can you call the Captain Clitus?
Logan, Grant, and Ronald Reagan
In the grave with Xylophagan
Do you know the ghost community?
Sound the horn, address the city

(Who will save it? Dedicate it?
Who will praise it? Commemorate it for you?)

We are awakened with the axe
Night of the Living Dead at last
They have begun to shake the dirt
Wiping their shoulders from the earth
I know, I know the nations past
I know, I know they rust at last
They tremble with the nervous thought
Of having been, at last, forgot

Ring the bell and call or write us
Can you call the Captain Clitus?
B-U-D-A! Caledonia!
S-E-C-O-R! Magnolia!
B-I-R-D-S! And Kankakee!
Evansville and Parker City

Speaking their names, they shake the flag
Waking the earth, it lifts and lags
We see a thousand rooms to rest
Helping us taste the bite of death
I know, I know my time has passed
I'm not so young, I'm not so fast
I tremble with the nervous thought
Of having been, at last, forgot

Ring the bell and call or write us
Can you call the Captain Clitus?
Comer and Potato Peelers!
G-R-E-E-N Ridge! Reeders
M-C-V-E-Y! And Horace!
E-N-O-S! Start the chorus

Corn and farms and tombs in Lemmon
Sailor Springs and all things feminine
Centerville and Old Metropolis
Shawneetown, you trade and topple us
Hold your tongue and don't divide us
Land of God, you hold and guide us

To reinforce his benediction, the song ends with Two reprises of sorts that he has given their own titles to. The first is a shout out to a large annual Christian Music festival that is held annually in Bushnell,  Illinois: "Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell".

Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
The second reprise is "In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth" which is a play on words engraved on the Lincoln Memorial:
In changing the quote he, of course, continues his benediction. He's clever though. Illinois being the land of Lincoln. Lincoln was assassinated. Thus he also an example of the lost hopes that echo again and again though out the album. I can see why the critics loved this album so much. There is plenty to chew on.

We are approaching the album's conclusion, only another week or two more of Sufjan Stevens before we begin to what will likely be a long visit to Chicago. Join us next Saturday for a bit more Illinois as we ever so slowly move onto Route 66. And stop by on Sunday as we continue our Tijuana junket off old Highway 101.

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