Day 29: “Death with Dignity” by Sufjan Stevens

If you have no idea what this is supposed to be, check out my last post. In short, I’m breaking down Sufjan Steven’s album Carrie & Lowell track-by-track to try to find new meaning in it. You can check out the lyrics to this song here. I am using Genius, which has explanations for a lot of stuff, but I’ll try to stay away from reiterating what the annotations say for that.

Before I begin, I want to give some context to the album as a whole (a lot of this information comes from this interview with Stevens). First, the title refers to the name of Stevens’ late mother and her ex-husband Lowell. Lowell serves as Stevens’ father figure despite after his divorce from Carrie and is currently involved with Stevens’s record label Asthmatic Kitty. As a child, Sufjan lived with his mother and stepfather for three summers in Oregon. Other than that, he barely saw his mother, who struggled with addiction and mental illness until her death. Stevens explained that her death struck him much more than he expected and more or less serves as the inspiration for this album.

The song begins with the sounds of guitars plucked in a rather light and happy tune. It continues throughout the song but gets quieter when the vocals come in. It serves as the only instrumentation we really hear other than a few piano notes interspersed within. This is intriguing for Sufjan, known for having entire orchestras in some of his projects. Because of how little instrumentation there is, it’s immediately clear that there is an emphasis on the vocals and lyrics in this song, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The apparent lightness of the sound contrasts with the heavy subject-manner, creating a balance.

The title of the song refers to the Death with Dignity Act, which was passed in Oregon in 1994 and allows for terminally ill patients to receive physician-aided death. We can only assume that this is the way that his mother left the world. With the title of the first track, Stevens has shown us the main subject of the work: the death of his mother.

The first stanza of the work talks about the “spirit of [his] silence” and how he is more or less afraid of it. Silence is associated with internal reflection and beginning to accept his feelings. This makes a lot of sense, because Stevens has never been so direct when talking about his life through his music. Up until now, he has always “mixed his own life history with fantastical images and stories of the ages” and never directly addressed his feelings. Thus, it makes perfect sense when he voices his apprehension, “I don’t know where to begin.” He begins without knowing where to begin, a sort of honesty that you generally don’t see and that makes the work more relatable.

In the rest of the song, there are a few lines that are repeated more than once, other than “I don’t know where to begin” (which appears four times in the song). In a similar vein, Stevens asks “What song do you sing for the dead?,” providing a similar level of honesty and confusion in the wake of the death of a close one. He doesn’t know what to sing and what to do, but at the same time, he realizes that he has “got nothing to prove” (also repeated), giving him the ability to move forward and face the spirit of his silence and attempt to find the beautiful forest “somewhere in the desert,” representing the emotional renewal and return to a pleasant life hidden away in the sadness and grief of death.

The final stanza holds a great amount of meaning in a very direct manner. First, in a line structure resembling the first stanza, he tells his mother that he “forgive[s] her” and “long[s] to be near” her. After living his life with little interaction with her, this is an outstanding development, albeit a depressing one. Only after her death has Sufjan acknowledged and voiced his love and desire to be with his mother. The repeated lines of “every road leads to an end” and “you’ll never see us again” remind us of the finality of death and how it haunts him, like an “apparition.”

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2 thoughts on “Day 29: “Death with Dignity” by Sufjan Stevens

  1. i have searched the meaning of this song many times and now I found it.. Thank you so much.. I wanna translate your analysis about this song to Indonesian.. do you mind if I do that??

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