Review: The Dissolution of Blind Faith, Then an Awakening in Sufjan Stevens’ “America” & “My Rajneesh”

Sufjan Stevens © 2020
Sufjan Stevens © 2020
In “America” and “My Rajneesh”, Sufjan Stevens turns crises of faith into an opportunity to encourage listeners to think about and question what and who they believe in.
Listen: “America” & “My Rajneesh” – Sufjan Stevens

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America - Sufjan Stevens

America is exhausted, scared, and grappling with diminishing faith and hope. Yes, this could refer to the country, but it’s actually about Sufjan Stevens’ latest single, “America”, the lead single off his upcoming album The Ascension.

Sufjan Stevens calls it “a protest song against the sickness of American culture in particular”, and in “America” he juxtaposes traditional Catholic imagery like the cross, Judas, and breaking bread with paranoia, disaster, and shame. “America” intertwines religion and patriotism, and shows the process one goes through when their belief in an invisible bigger force – be that god, Jesus, or the USA – is no longer. A crisis of faith and a crisis of identity, in the hands of Sufjan Stevens, is turned into an ambitious sonic journey.

Stevens begs, confesses, and fears. “America” is Stevens on his knees, trying to avoid the unavoidable. What happens when the values you were raised on prove to be the opposite of what you were told they were? When you construct your personal identity around external forces and these betray you, where do you stand?

Is it love you’re after?
A sign of the flood or one more disaster
Don’t do to me what you did to America
Don’t do to me what you did to America
I have loved you, I have grieved
I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe
I have loved you, I received
I have traded my life
For a picture of the scenery
Don’t do to me what you did to America
Don’t do to me what you did to America

Religion and patriotism are structured similarly: they’re well-propagated systems of belief that depend upon a general population trusting powers they can’t see, and rely on institutions, texts, and figures to add something concrete and supposedly tangible to the mix. It’s no surprise, then, that Stevens combines both of these forces and through them constructs a song whose main theme is the dissolution of blind faith. The man who once committed to writing one album about each of the fifty states has now realised that his homeland is not what he thought it was, and is working out all these feelings in song.

“America”’s 12 minutes, taken up mostly by instrumentals, cause the listener to reflect: what was done to America, and why is it bad enough that Stevens doesn’t want that done to himself? Who is he talking to? Is a grim outcome as inevitable as it sounds? This journey of questioning and formulation of answers is done internally by each listener, allowing them to bask in the unwritten moments of this musical trek, producing individual results the world at large may never see.

Listen: “America” – Sufjan Stevens

With the themes of “America” in mind, it would be easy to assume that its b-side, “My Rajneesh” serves as the emotional and spiritual counterpart to the song – and in many ways it does. “My Rajneesh” was written about Osho and the Rajneeshpuram, a cult-like living settlement founded by the spiritual leader in Oregon during the 80s. Stevens treats the central character as a god: if his faith was torn apart in “America”, it seems to be reconstructed in “My Rajneesh”, with endless devotion and the idea of salvation expressed both lyrically and sonically.

“My Rajneesh” is a light and hopeful awakening. It sounds like Stevens is embodying one of the many orange-clad devotees whose lives revolved around their spiritual leader. There are glittery accents around the chorus, choir-like backing vocals, and a sense of community throughout the song that’s intensified when Stevens’ voice melts into the ones of the background singers. It seems like all is well and good in “My Rajneesh”, and the hole left by the demise of Stevens’ patriotism is filled by devotion to a new, foreign higher entity.

I lit a fire and drank off the breath of his kiss
My tambourine affirmed by the dance of his wrist
Mystical star, burn bright like the tail of a dog
And now we are blessed with the righteousness of the Lord
Illumination, accede my need, my Rajneesh
Hallucination, accede my need, my Rajneesh
Illumination, accede my need, my Rajneesh
Hallucination, accede my need, my Rajneesh

Have you watched Wild, Wild Country on Netflix? If so, you’ll know that illumination, hallucination, and a chosen family in a farm in Oregon aren’t exactly the ingredients that summarise how the story ended. Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh (aka Osho, aka the song’s “My Rajneesh”) ended up inducing his followers to commit the largest bioterrorist attack in US history in 1984. Other allegations against the Rajneeshes include arson, attempted murder, drug smuggling, and voting and immigration fraud. All the hope that resonates through Stevens’ voice in the verses? Useless.

Listen: “My Rajneesh” – Sufjan Stevens

But Stevens doesn’t ignore the tragic outcome of the story of the cult he sings about. Eventually, his voice changes, going from unadulterated to auto-tuned, layered, almost metallic. Innocence and purity makes way to manipulation in his voice, and it’s in this exact moment where the lyrics shift and the community Stevens sings about has its dark underbelly exposed.

Bright as a thunderbird, singing
You stare at the sun to see the sublime
Forgetting the light that makes you go blind
Osho you ask of us singing
If courage is love of the unknown
Consider the powers parading you home
I’m on the path of love saying
You stand in the shade to feel it was blessed
Obscuring from light the seeds you possess

Suddenly Stevens recognises that what he was once told was good actually blinded him, and that the one who promises endless joy and fulfilment actually won’t give his “seeds” the chance to grow and thrive. And then, again, an institution that was so central to one’s own living is destroyed, innocence gives way to harsh reality, and no higher power or institution is safe from questioning. Blind faith is extinguished once again.

Examining patriotism and religion, Sufjan Stevens creates two delightfully long songs that, when combined, encourage a certain skepticism whenever beliefs are too powerful and institutions too big and important to be seen. Patriotism and religion rely on the hopefuls to cling onto them and infuse them with their power – what’s a nation without its people and a messiah without his followers? – and in “America” and “My Rajneesh” Stevens depicts the transition from believer to skeptic, from mindless lover to heartbroken cynic.

The questioning of one’s beliefs the process of letting go of blind faith can be painful, but Stevens makes it sound natural, if not pretty. Due to their length, “America” and “My Rajneesh” don’t rush the development of these feelings, but rather guide the listener through a journey of sonic ups and downs, give them the space to breathe and take it all in, and hold their hand through another instrumental rollercoaster. Stevens has a habit of turning all that’s gut-wrenching into a thing of beauty, and in “America” and “My Rajneesh” he doubles down on that ability by turning crises of faith into an opportunity to encourage listeners to think about and question what and who they believe in.

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America - Sufjan Stevens

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