I’m not into generalizations that any one experience of a song is the “correct” one, but I will say this for myself: I didn’t understand Sufjan Stevens’ “The Owl and the Tanager” until I heard it live. The hanging on, waiting for each chord and phrase like an axe to fall—the bated breath of an entire auditorium filling the pauses in the performance—taught a well-formed lesson on the emotional and psychological uses of suspense; taught us that this is a song defined by its absences, a song made of empty space held together with tiny fragments of the universal, a song like an atom.
But this article isn’t about when I heard it played live. It’s about when I heard it for the very first time.
I had downloaded the All Delighted People EP with my Christmas iTunes gift card, because it was Sufjan and on my brother’s recommendation. I was in a car, my dad’s car, on the way home from a family gathering. After trying and failing to sleep in a leather seat with impeccable posture, I sank down into the crevice between the back bench and passenger chair, headphones on, first impression of the new album turned up in shuffle.
Totally enveloped in a general miasma of car—pressed between the seats, view of the ceiling part obscured by the bench, leather smell filling my nose—I felt, on the sensory level, both trapped and embraced. Sufjan Stevens’ vocal performance on “The Owl and the Tanager” sounds for all the world like a man with a silver flute for a neck and a bellows pressed against his heart teetering on the brink of tears, amber droplets shimmering on edges, not quite falling and not quite falling, while a mammalian piano rolls and stammers beneath them for six and a half minutes. The cavernous echo effect layered over all makes for consonants you can feel and taste in your own mouth, notes that rise and float away with devastating subtlety. I imagined I could almost see a soundless shower of grey and marigold-colored feathers in the darkness.
Sufjan’s lyrics are generally cryptic and you can find attempts to dissect them all over your nearest music-review forum—if the songs are really as personal and memoiristic as they sound, then by this point fans are likely to have produced the Complete Biography of Sufjan Stevens by sheer probability. In the case of “The Owl and the Tanager” there are more ambiguities than just who what and where—the lyrics are alternatingly vicious (“I punched you in the head, you only laughed and laughed and laughed”) and tender (“Slept in my arms, sleeping in the sill, I was sleeping in the room with you”). The speaker lurches from hollow-boned vulnerability—“trembling in the cage”—to the aggression of the first line I mentioned. Leaving entirely aside the debate of who the speaker character is singing to or about, their words place love and violence too close for comfort. They come from a place of present or remembered powerlessness.
For all the terror, the song’s remembered images are largely peaceful and beautiful—red blankets, billowing sheets on the line–the bliss of love endangered or dangerous, constantly teetering on the brink of disaster.
And there is that empty space. Every trill between verses, every pause between three-note phrases, is a comment on the cliffhangers of a cruel love. Each is a held breath. Each recalls the potential, in any given moment, for bliss or pain. Each is empty, absent of sound; yet each swells with the hope and dread of waiting.
I said this was about the first time ever, not the first time live. It is at this point in the essay that I discover that it is about both. Because the first time live, I was reminded of the first time ever. I remembered feeling both trapped and embraced. And I understood.