Song 3 – We swaggered and swayed

Sufjan Stevens – The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out to Get Us!

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

And so begins my favourite track on one of my favourite albums (I think I can add here of all time), Come on Feel the Illinoise. I jumped on the Sufjan band wagon at Illinois, along with, I’d hazard to guess, maybe 90% of his fans. I read a lot of music blogs and message boards and his name had been popping up for some time. Then, Triple J picked up Chicago and played it incessantly – that song just carried me away with it. I picked up the album on a punt really, one day when I was looking for something else. Isn’t that how all the great things are found?

I got the album about 2 weeks before I flew to Cairns for work. I went with the boss (we tend to do these things in tandem), but for some reason I can’t ever remember a time where I’ve felt so alone. It was a weird time for me – a lot of stuff was changing, I was beginning to realize a lot about myself and how I had dealt with some shit that had happened, and I was starting to form an idea of my head about how to pull myself out of it. And it was only me who could do it – pointless to think I could get help from anyone else.

Anyway, on the second day of the trip I was in the foyer of the hotel waiting for the boss to finally finish getting ready to go out for the day, and I had my iPod on shuffle. I was in one of those restless moods where not only was I annoyed with every person within a 100 metre radius for no good reason, I couldn’t settle on a song I actually wanted to listen to. Flick, flick, flick, flick, until suddenly I landed on Sufjan. I had never heard the song before and hadn’t had a chance to listen to any of the album, but the opening of the track, with the gentle, meandering flute and acoustic guitar, automatically smoothed every ruffled feather in me. I could feel the snark just dripping off, and it’s because of this that I left the track playing.

It seems to me that a lot of people these days are Very Grown Up. I, myself, have been accused of this many times. I’ve always, even as a kid, been too adult and too responsible and, according to my family, the sensible one. Maybe it comes from being the eldest child of an absurdly large family? I don’t know. It’s only really been the last 2 or 3 years that I’ve started letting go of that. Now, with the hindsight of adulthood, I realize how quickly I was trying to grow up. I feel some amount of regret about that, too, but there’s no point in dwelling on that.

This song is a little ambiguous about its actual subject, and it’s debatable as to who is telling the story. I’ve interpreted it this way though – a person is lying in bed on a very cold night. Sleep alludes them, and the invisible-yet-visible monsters that permeate that time of the night are forefront in their mind (at least, that’s the feeling I get). They suddenly see a wasp on the wall in the room, and it brings back a vivid memory of growing up.

Cut to some kids swimming at a spot north of Savannah. One of them gets stung by a wasp while he’s in the water – the person telling the story goes to make fun of them and the pain their in, but then feeling and situation overtakes them and it turns into something else altogether. Something confusing and awkward and beautiful.

I’d be hard pressed to find another song that painted a visual picture so effectively in my mind. The early flute brings to mind summer sun, humidity and drowsy afternoons. The darting and almost breathless da da da of the woodwind and the strings brings visions of a wasp darting its way through the air. The joyous pah pah pah of the trumpet represents, I think, how carefree he really felt, regardless of all the angsty confusion with his friend, at the time of the memory. It’s why some people are so moved by classical music – a true interpretation of an artistic vision. Then at 2 mins 30 seconds in when the choir and drums come in, this is especially true of the first time I heard the song, something almost physical wells up inside of me.

The song could be about a young guy coming to terms with his not-so-platonic feelings about his best friend. This is actually the way I interpret it. It could also be narrated from the point of view of a girl, which seems to be the common train of thought on the interweb (what, boys can’t wear legwarmers?!). I’m not actually sure any of that matters. It’s a story about the innocence of childhood, and that clean, uninterrupted view of the world, and the people in your small, personal world, that you have when you’re growing up. Getting older is awkward. You do things and say things before you think them through, and there’s so much in the world about people and emotions and human interaction that you don’t understand. Everything is confusing and complicated and you feel there’s just no way to articulate what you’re experiencing.

Sufjan Stevens honestly writes about childhood, its effect on adult demons, and general human interaction better than anyone else I know (another example is Pittsfield from the album The Avalanche, which I’ve already written about). He does it with such a sweetness and generosity and you get the feeling that every lyric is so personal to him. He is not trying to drive a message or create a catchy lyrical hook or even (though he sometimes hits the mark) write poetry. He’s just telling a story, and a very personal story at that. He’s trying to explain his view of the world and the view of the people in his world. It sucks me in every time.

Seemingly, for a lot of fans of this album, this song is a bit of a sleeper. Perhaps it only hit me so hard because of past experience or what have you, but I doubt anyone could argue with the beauty of the musical arrangements or lyrics. That day in Cairns it managed to talk me back from some cranky ledge, and it was a reminder of times that were less complicated and less full of assumed adultness. I really, really needed it at that time.

For some reason this song is now almost always what I put in my ears at airport gates while I’m waiting to board a flight. I have no idea why that is, but I always get this incredible urge to hear it then. I spend a lot of time in airports and hotels with my job (although not so much in the last few months), and I think this song has a way of transporting me and, as it did the first time I heard it, stripping away the dead wood of the day. That’s a powerful thing.

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1 Reply to “Song 3 – We swaggered and swayed

  1. Thats my fav song on the Illinoise album too! It calms me down and makes me gather my thoughts. The harmony with the Illinoise-makers (i think that’s what he calls his back-up vocalists) towards the end just ties it all together. That song (and the entire album) is just magic.

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