To Sufjan Stevens, a Detroit-originating singer-songwriter, believing in God is no different to loving anyone else. He feels the same when it comes his lovers, to his best friends, and even his mother.
Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in his song ‘Beloved My John’, from his 2015 record Carrie and Lowell, which received an incredibly high rating from Pitchfork under ‘Best New Music’.
Both faith and love require intense devotion against all odds; Sufjan knows he will doubt, viewing it as integral to his faith. “Still I pray to what I cannot see”, he sings in ‘Eugene’, knowing that the entities to whom he sings – God, his mother – might not ever even hear his words. He knows that, eventually, he will be forsaken by someone.
Sufjan needs to put his love, his faith, into words. In ‘Beloved My John’, his need to put devotion into words is accompanied by intense anxiety – “Beloved of John, I get it all wrong”. In the same way as prayer is a way of performing faith, a way of believing in itself, professing your love is a way of loving in itself.
Beyond the question of how to express his feelings of love and devotion, Stevens also wonders whether saying ‘I love you’ is the same as loving. Does one have to say ‘I love you’ to be loving at all? And can saying it bring back the moment in which you loved? Can saying that you love turn back time?
In ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us’ on his fifth studio album, Illinois, Sufjan sings “I can tell you, I love him each day”. He tells the audience what he could never tell his childhood best friend. He loves and he loves, and he tries anew each morning.
Everything about Stevens’ work is an attempt to love right, to believe right, to ‘Get Real, Get Right’, and, ultimately, to vocalise this in music. He asks continually whether a choir, or an orchestra, or centuries-old Christmas carols, or Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, or even just the voices of three Sufjans can say what one can’t.
There is so much air in his voice, creating a space in which his lyrics sound like a whispered confession. Space in which to try and speak his faith. The thing about faith and love, is that it always happens in the attempt. Sometimes he fails – Stevens ends ‘Futile Devices’ knowing that, even if he had spoken his love aloud, he’d probably “sound dumb”.
Words don’t have to work for his devotion to be real, but in the attempt, they are sanctified. We, are sanctified. To Sufjan Stevens, saying is believing.