Like Casper the Ghost: Sufjan Stevens’ “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

I love Sufjan Stevens immensely, with my whole heart. I will admit that and I will admit that with no caveats, no messy embarrassing notes. I love Sufjan Stevens with my whole heart and his affinity for singing about immensely strange things very quietly wormed its way into my ribcage when I was young and brought along with it some kind of fondness for his sense of truth, too. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is the first single from his new album, Carrie & Lowell (out 3/31 on Asthmatic Kitty). He released an album trailer in January and it is a minute long and I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times. It’s been so long, it’s been five years since the All Delighted People EP. Five years ago I was twelve years old (yes, it’s true, I’m the youngest here) and mostly listened to Sufjan Stevens on long road-trips, trying to eat my gas-station potato chips more quietly so that I could hear “Chicago” in my tinny headphones over the rush of the highway around me (all things go, all things go). I spent most of that year pretending I was a robot but listening to Sufjan Stevens has always made me feel like I am the most vulnerable, overwrought parts of myself. This is why I mean it when I say that even though Carrie & Lowell is heralded nominally as a return to his folk roots, I don’t really care about that. I just care a lot about this song, about this music.

“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is not a long song, doesn’t even scrape the 3 minute mark. There’s not a lot to it. Sufjan’s voice is not spectacular, even layered on top of itself five times, and there is just a tiny finger-picked guitar in the background and nothing about this song punches; it just aches. “Now that I fell into your arms” is held so long on such a sparse breath that it feels like he’s going to suffocate. Half of this song is a whisper, tremulous, barely present. There seems to be an enormous strain in singing so quietly.

The best Sufjan songs form symbiotic relationships with the insides of you and I am sitting here, looking at the snow on the rooftops of my university and it is very difficult to breathe. Sometimes your hurt needs to be affirmed loudly and sometimes it doesn’t. “I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart / lonely vampire inhaling its fire” is, god, such a silly lyric, and I haven’t even talked about the part of the song with dragons.  It’s so dumb, but don’t you feel it?  There is this hopeful lilt at the end of “through the center of my heart,” like even the ugliest things can be made beautiful.

There’s blood on that blade
Fuck me, I’m falling apart
My assassin, like Casper the ghost
There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross

This is the silliest lyric. When I use the word “silly,” I mean it very tenderly, both tender in respects to Sufjan and tender in respects to myself. Tender towards Sufjan for this metaphor, “my assassin like Casper the ghost” and tender towards the stringy guts inside of myself that feel it anyway. This is a Sufjan Stevens song and that means it is possibly about God or possibly about love and comprised of harmonies and sighing. “I take one more hit when you depart,” and there it is. This is good music to listen to while crying, I’m serious, because you start laughing and you wipe your mascara off on the back of your hand and “Casper the ghost,” seriously?

This song feels like it ought to be twice as long, feels like it ends in the middle of a sentence. It feels like part of a story unspoken and it’s still more than a month until the album comes out and I am trembling on the edge of excited. It’s such a done thing, to care about Sufjan Stevens, but this is music constructed to excavate the parts of me that are still twelve years old – I can’t help it.

About Sophia

Sophia was raised (but not born) in small-town Missouri and now she lives in Chicago. She is interested in: lipstick, geographical narratives in Midwestern pop-punk, the close relationship between intimacy and mythical scale in contemporary pop, and cats.

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