Disclaimer: While it would be untrue to say that the text I’m covering has nothing to do with my research, this has more to do with the forgiving definition (or lack thereof) of the current range of my inquiry than the focused attention I’ve laden on this artist. That being said, I do think of this text and its author quite a lot, so I may try to work them in somehow (but I’m highly dubious that I’ll actually put serious effort into doing so).
Disclaimer Two: I could probably pontificate at an unwilling listener about this album for the literal duration of my natural life, so while I’m going to knowledge that I’m barely going to scratch the surface here in hopes that I don’t try to do more, I’m going to try and just set up the connections without synthesizing them to avoid going over the word limit.
For a while, I would skip over “The Man of Metropolis Steal our Hearts” whenever I would listen to Illinois (Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 concept album about the state). I fucking loved the album, it was (and still is) my favorite album hands down, but I had no idea why he went from singing poignant ballads about wrongheaded teenage misanthropic, childhood sweethearts with cancer, and old ladies painfully reminiscing, to devoting a (six minute) song to Superman. It totally threw off my whole idea of the album and so I decided to just try to forget about it.
About a year after I first heard of the album, I saw a video of Stevens performing “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” (the one about the old lady [maybe — the gender of most of his narrators isn’t specified] I mention above). He and his bandmates stood on stage, all wearing the kind of fairy wings that parents buy for particularly girly girls. My first reaction when I saw the wings and saw the light sort of glitter off of what appeared to be glitter on his face was: “oh, that’s… oddly effeminate” — which I immediately regretted having thought, even while acknowledging that it was the most succinct phrasing of my genuine reaction.
To gloss briefly over that offputting statement (I swear I’ll come back to it): at the end of the introductory monologue, Stevens says, “maybe this is one of our theme songs for this tour, ’cause that’s why we all have wings on, it’s sort of to overcome my fear of flying things.” When I heard that, pieces immediately started to click together. When I began to think about it, I saw that flight was one of the main motifs on the album. From the UFOs on the opening track, to the Black Hawks on the next one, to the metaphorical “flight” of escape on “Chicago,” all the way to the predatory wasp of the song at hand (if you want to browse the full track listing to identify more instances, here it is), and, of course, to Superman (who’s even pictured flying on the album cover).
I then began to realize there were some more parallels between “The Man of Metropolis….” and “The Predatory Wasp…” Specifically, the former song espouses some pretty bold (though ironic/non-literal) statements about masculinity (“only a real man can be a lover… / only a steel man can be a lover”), while the latter stands in a very fragile relation to conceptions of gender (the narrator wears leg warmers, but Sufjan sings the song from his perspective / it’s not clear whether the love between the characters is a romantic or kindred one or even which gender the narrator is either way).
So, I began to associate flight with this struggle with masculinity, and then I realized that the motif of faith intersects with flight on “Casimir Pulaski Day” (“And the cardinal hits the window / … All the glory that the Lord has made / and the complications when I see His face / in the morning in window”) and with masculinity on “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” (the person referred to by the title being God… need I say more?) and “Casimir Pulaski Day” (The song’s namesake was a most likely transsexual military general / the indeterminate genders of the characters). Then, I realized fate and flight intersect on the title track with the UFO delivering the holy spirit unto some lowly cornfield.
With that simple guiding directive to focus on a specific element on the album, so much other shit just immediately popped out and began to intersect and this album that I knew and loved took on this vast, richer life in a matter of moments.
It was one of those spasmodic, beautiful moments of rapid-fire entanglements that overpower you with this overwhelming sense of density and scale. I stopped skipping “Man of Metropolis…” after that and, more importantly, I stopped trying to confine the import of someone else’s album to what made sense to me.