Sunday, October 19, 2008

And the cardinal hits the window

Here’s a maudlin thought for Sunday evening. I Shot a Man in Reno is a new book by Word Magazine contributor Graeme Thomson and it is all about how death has been portrayed in popular songs over the decades. I heard about it on the latest and very wonderful Word podcast. There’s a competition to win a copy and to enter one needs to suggest a favourite song about death and explain why it is so special. My entry is below. The above portrait is of the Pulaski fellow.

My favourite song about death remains Casimir Pulaski Day from the Illinois long player by Sufjan Stevens. There are no gory shoot-outs or dramatic car wrecks here; simply, the narrator’s girlfriend is diagnosed with bone cancer, lots of beautifully observed details follow and she dies peacefully at the end of the number. The small details render the track so touchingly personal and homespun that it’s impossible not to feel moved. Shirts are untucked, shoes are untied, necks are kissed, blouses are almost touched, unusual tokens are proffered, contrite fathers drive to naval yards; essentially the pictures painted are so tender, precise, occasionally humdrum and occasionally quirky that one almost feels a sense of voyeuristic guilt from peering too closely as the story unfolds. This is a song about young love, about loss and about complication: the narrator’s amorous feelings complicate the illness while the illness complicates, well, life itself. It’s an understated delight throughout. The girl’s death itself is announced so modestly – “ In the morning when you finally go/ And the nurse runs in with her head hung low” – that the passing seems expected, planned for yet chillingly sad. The girl breathes her last on Casimir Pulaski Day, an Illinois public holiday in March, another almost throwaway detail that means little yet such a great deal. I’ve listened to this song countless times and the clarity of the images makes for a compelling six minutes underpinned by the most sublime melody and delightful singing and playing. As for the girl in the song, I’m sure it’s what she would have wanted: a delicate jewel in the stunning Stevens canon. Beautiful.

No comments: