Today’s song is probably the saddest in my list of songs to write about. I might change my mind later and find one that’s even more sobering than this one, but as it stands, Casimir Pulaski Day takes the depression cake.
Sufjan Stevens is a genius singer-songwriter who has dabbled in several genres over the 15+ years that he’s been making music, but he’s most known for his work with acoustic stringed instruments. Of all his work, I would say his most recent LP, Carrie and Lowell, is the most accessible. If you’ve never listened to him before, I highly recommend giving that one a shot.
Casimir Pulaski Day is from his Illinois LP, and is presumably named for the Polish holiday widely celebrated in Chicago. It also marks a particularly sorrowful day for the protagonist of this song; the day he loses the love of his youth to bone cancer.
I don’t have a personal anecdote or direct way to relate to this story; I’m fortunate enough that I haven’t lost someone who was that close to me. But Sufjan tells this story in such a way that makes it very easy to step into the mind of the boy and understand his pain.
What I appreciate about Sufjan’s story-telling in his songs is the way he includes unsexy, mundane details. He makes no attempt to romanticize this process of loss. It’s messy, awkward, confusing; it’s very much human. There’s no immediate closure from the hurt. It’s not the type of loss we’re accustomed to seeing portrayed in movies. He connects his art to his listeners in a very human way.
Another strong theme that Sufjan writes into this song is the effect loss has on his faith. His Christian faith is a theme that’s pervasive throughout his catalog of songs. He’s also been a vocal critic of ethnocentric Americanized Christianity on his blog. But unlike many “Christian” artists, Sufjan doesn’t hesitate to be openly share his personal struggles with faith. In the case of Casimir, the loss of the one he loves causes his belief to falter. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” – It’s easy to understand the story of Job from an intellectual perspective, but to be put in his shoes gives a much deeper level of understanding.
// All the glory that the Lord has made // And the complications when I see His face // In the morning in the window //
I have no doubt that Sufjan is extremely well-read, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he’s an avid C.S. Lewis fan. C.S. Lewis sums up this crisis of faith experienced by many Christians in his book the Problem of Pain.
“If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”
I highly recommend Sufjan Stevens and C.S. Lewis – they’re two of my favorites.