One Track Minded | Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ is a heartbreaking examination of the soul

In One Track Minded, we pick a select cut from a chosen act and delve beneath the surface. First up, Mark Conroy shines a light on Sufjan Stevens’ sombre ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ ahead of the Michigan native’s visit to Dublin this month.

Earlier this year cheeky songwriter extraordinaire Sufjan Stevens gave us the sparse, intimate album of the year contender Carrie & Lowell. The record, which came about in the wake of his mostly absent mother’s untimely death, was a glorious creative expression of a son’s complicated grief. Accompanied, for the most part, by little more than the strums of his own Guitar, Stevens was surprisingly stripped back and heart-achingly honest across 11 near-perfect tracks.

Carrie & Lowell may have all of his typical hallmarks of excellency and be his best work to date, but it’s not his most representative. That title would be reserved for the former best Stevens LP, Illinois. With its sweeping folk orchestration, absurdly long song titles, electronic freak-outs and immortalisation of truly obscure locations of the American Midwest, it is perhaps his definitive album. And if there’s a definitive Sufjan Stevens song, it would probably be Illinois’ ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, quite possibly his finest moment.   

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The sombre track has Stevens remembering an odd, regionally celebrated holiday alongside a tragic childhood friend who had lost her battle with “cancer of the bone”. This is an artist who always had a penchant for interweaving an area’s local history with his own personal history, and its here that this trait is at its most pronounced. The song’s emotional core – the memories of the young girl’s final months and those he shared with her previously – completely overshadow the day in question to the extent that its only mentioned in passing as the ‘first of march’ (type the man’s name into Google and you’ll probably find as much hits of Steven’s song than as the actual 18th Century revolutionary war officer). Instead, in the ears of the listeners, the day takes a new meaning, one of remembrance for a life taken too soon and one that’s been afforded to this life by Stevens himself.

‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ comes around right around the mid-point of Illinois, straight after the smile-inducing epic, ‘Chicago’; the two marking not only the albums centrepiece but also easily the best back-to-back of  Stevens’ career. They are each other’s counterpoints. The maximalist orchestral sound of the first is juxtaposed by the minimalist folk of the second. If ‘Chicago’ was a delightful document of youthful escape, then ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ was the sobering reminder that tragically for some, youth can mark the twilight years of one’s life.

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Structurally, it’s straightforward. The gentle, tuneful strums from Stevens’s guitar being the only constant. As expected, that banjo, the instrument that makes the man the butt of so many ‘white boy’ musician jokes, makes an appearance. The two string instruments, the latter being played by Sufjan’s own brother, work in tandem to create an aching sense of melancholy. Even if it lacks the indulgence of others off Illinois, the deft use of horns and serene backing vocals of the outro ensure it works in that album’s context and not on something like Carrie & Lowell.   

Stevens sprinkles the song-semi stream of consciousness style with a variety of memories, both warm and heart-rending, that paint the event as a personal, family and community tragedy. The flashbacks are never fully formed but there’s enough in them for the listener to get a sense of the aguish or humanity from the fleeting images. There’s the tearful father who makes up  for his seemingly uncharacteristic breakdown by taking his dying daughter to the Navy yard, the bible study group who fruitlessly but endearingly attempt a cure via a spiritual séance and Stevens’ own affably affecting interactions with the girl.

Perhaps the most enduring image is that of an awkwardly adorable yet barely pubescent ‘living room kiss’ shared between the speaker and the female friend:

“When your father found out what we did that night / And you told me you were scared/All the glory when you ran outside / With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied / And you told me not to follow you”

It’s hard to imagine any other lyric in recent years that is both brimming with life and childlike innocence but also, given what we already know, a haunting sense of cruel irony that someone could be struck down at such a time. ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ is most revealing about Sufjan Stevens’ own brand of Christian ideology. His staunchly religious upbringing is no secret and his faith has always informed his work but he’s not afraid to question it.

Stevens has described this belief system as one in which he finds “incredible freedom” and even if his “relationship with God is fundamental, its manifestations in [his] life and the practices of it are constantly changing”. It’s this malleability of Christian ethics that once made him humanise a serial killer, but here it’s tested to its limits. After finally accepting his friends passing, Stevens is only left to question God’s actions. The Speaker had repeatedly spoken about “all the glory the lord had made” but in the finals verses, Stevens feels ‘shaken’ and   now admits that he finds only “complications when he sees his face”. In the final lament of ‘he takes and takes and takes…’ Stevens is not only challenging God’s intentions in relation to the young girl’s death, but also providing a case for the many others prematurely lost to us.

At the end of August, Sufjan Stevens will arrive in Dublin for two nights and I’ll be there for one of them. Chances are he’ll play this song and chances are I’ll be at least a little teary-eyed (I’ll put it down to particularly pollen-riddled Helix theatre but in reality I don’t even have hay fever) . But really, who could blame me? If a song like this doesn’t break your heart then the only logical reason is that you don’t have one to break.