Roundtable Talk: “Fourth of July”

“Sitting at the bed with the halo at your head
Was it all a disguise, like Junior High?
Where everything was fiction, future, and prediction
Now, where am I? My fading supply

Artist: Sufjan Stevens
“Fourth of July”
Carrie and Lowell

Song Meaning

Sufjan is speaking to his mother on her death bed and grapples with life’s great, unanswerable questions.

We’re All Gonna Die

Happy Fourth of July everyone! Before you slap some burgers on the grill and engage in pleasantries with your loved ones, let’s indulge in some morbidity.

This song gets stuck in my head every year around this time. I repeat the refrain over and over in my head without giving much thought to its meaning: “We’re all gonna die. We’re all gonna die.” I’m self-aware all of a sudden.

I don’t think I will ever forget seeing Sufjan Stevens in concert. The show promoted his Carrie and Lowell album, which has a resounding tone of grief and a helpless perseverance in its wake.

As I mentioned in an earlier review, the most striking sequence of that concert was Sufjan’s monologue on the meaning of death. As you read this, each of us has bacteria in our bodies waiting for us to die so it can return our temporary vessel to the earth from whence it came. We’re supposed to die. We are here for a blip, then it’s back to permanent non-existence. How can we fear something so natural?

Whatever beliefs you have in place to ease this reality, be that in afterlife or reincarnation, I hope it works for you. In this song, Sufjan doesn’t want his mother to die of cancer, but she explains to him that’s the way things are – she even asks why he is crying. Sufjan’s mother alludes to the legendary Tillamook Burn and fireworks on the Fourth of July – a nod to fleeting beauty and temporary pain. It must have been this interaction with his mother that caused Sufjan to reconsider his thoughts on life and death, hence the bacteria speech.

The live version of the song has a very distinct and profound difference than the album version: Sufjan ends the thrashing “We’re all gonna die” refrain with the true takeaway: “But I’m still alive.”

So why didn’t he lead with that? Probably because in order to live life to the fullest, you have to be aware that one day you won’t have a life at all.

Therefore, I will not be lighting any fireworks this week.

Random Notes

  • Seeing Sufjan live was one of the most intense concert experiences of my life, and I’ve been front row to Tech N9ne at Rockfest.
  • “Fourth of July” has several references to the sky. For whatever reason, looking into those references gets me more emotional than anything else in this song.
  • Here’s a palate cleanser if you’re finding it difficult to move forward with your day:

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