By: Alyssa Murphree, May 9, 2017
I’ll cut to the chase. This is a completely unwarranted review and analysis of a song that was released in 2010. You may be wondering how or why I’m going to write a review of a just one single song. But this is no ordinary tune. This is the nearly 25-minute spectacular that is Sufjan Stevens’ “Impossible Soul” and I’ve only now just garnered a mature enough attention span to listen to it in its entirety and ponder its meaning.
“Impossible Soul” is the final track on folk-rock, multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens’ 2010 album The Age of Adz. The song is a five-part musical epic chock full of deep, as well as catchy lyrics, wild guitar solos, the harmonizing of male and female vocalists, and some questionable, yet intriguing autotune usage. Much of Stevens’ music is autobiographical, and “Impossible Soul” is no exception. However, this song happens to provide a different experience for each listener, as each individual may have their own favorite part of the song and their own interpretation of its meaning. Music is, a very personal medium after all. Given the lyrical content though, the majority can agree that this song is Stevens’ way of reflecting on and coming to closure with a past relationship, a lover to whom he had bared his impossible soul to.
Each of the five parts have their own distinctive sound and are unique from each other, however leaving any one out could potentially alter the context of the song. They all carry each other and bring something beautiful of their own to the table. Based on my interpretation, these parts symbolize the five stages of grief, the grief Stevens experienced following the end of this intimate relationship. Grieving does not occur in linear progression, and the sequence in which they occur varies between each individual. In fact, some people may not experience every single stage. But here on “Impossible Soul”, we can observe the run of Stevens’ emotions through the different parts of the song
The first part is when Stevens and his partner are actually in the process of breaking up, the very beginning of this personal journey. We can gather that this was an unhealthy relationship for Stevens by the lyrical content that occurs in this section and throughout the song. The rhythm to this part is slow and cautious, as if Stevens is trying to gently tread his way out of this relationship. In the first few verses of the song, Stevens sings “oh woman, tell me what you want, and I’ll calm down without bleeding out, with a broken heart that you stabbed for an hour,” before stating “my beloved, you are the lover of my impossible soul.” It appears that Stevens is defensive and somewhat apologetic through this breakup, and that he feels the need to assure her of the love he did feel for her, despite how he was treated. But unfortunately, the damage was done and we can get a sense of denial, the first stage of Stevens’ grief in this part, as well as the next. “Don’t be distracted,” are the words that Stevens sings repeatedly throughout this second part, as he appears to be hyping himself up for the rocky road that is yet to come in the aftermath of this breakup.
In the third part, we garner the self-loathing that Stevens is experiencing at the very beginning of his newly single life. “Stupid man in the window, I couldn’t be at rest. All my delight, all that mattered, I couldn’t be at rest,” sings Stevens, although it is not entirely clear if the “stupid man” he is referring to is himself, or rather that he is angry at God, as he is a highly spiritual individual and many of his songs allude to that aspect of his life. This section displays the anger and depression he is experiencing in his grief. In the background of this part, we hear frantic, muffled, what seems to be yelling, which elevates the unrest that is felt in Stevens and that the listener can feel as well. The lyrics “oh I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all” add depth to the unsettling and emotional downward spiral he is experiencing before slowly calming down at the end of this part. “Hold on Suf, hold on Suf,” he sings to himself over and over before enthusiastically clattering into the next part.
With no time to spare, we move from the melodramatic lyrics and instrumentals right into my favorite part of “Impossible Soul”, the rousing and self-motivating part four. “It’s a long life, better pinch yourself! Put your face together, better get it right,” chants Stevens and the background vocalists in what is seriously a bonafide jam. It’s hard to imagine somebody’s emotions shifting into self-love, perseverance, and acceptance this quickly following the brutal breakup we just spent nearly half of the song listening to. From there, the remaining majority of this part is Stevens repeating the catchy mantra “it’s not so impossible!” to himself over and over with a trumpeting, infectious beat scattered between.
Just as quickly as the transition from part three to four occurred, we move into the slow, acoustic final part of “Impossible Soul”. Because this part has the ability to stand alone from the rest, it can sometimes be found individually with the title “Pleasure Principle”. Stevens tinkers on the strings of an acoustic guitar as he sings “I never meant to cause you pain, my burden is the weight of a feather. I never meant to lead you on, I only meant to please me however.” Stevens is coming to terms with the circumstances of the breakup and accepting that he played a role that led to it as well. He acknowledges that a significant factor of him remaining in the relationship for so long was for his own pleasure, his selfishness, stating that “girl, I want nothing less than pleasure” and even questioning his partner in believing that he would stay for so long with “and did you think I’d stay the night? And did you think I’d love you forever?” In this part, we hear Stevens finally accepting the course the relationship took, the final stage of grief. “Boy, we made such a mess together,” he admits to himself, as the 25 minute tale ends and softly fades away.