Sufjan Stevens finally returns with his first proper album in five years – “Carrie & Lowell”. Thankfully, it is absolutely lush, gorgeous, personal, and possibly his best work to date. Gone are the electronic orchestration from his last effort, Age of Adz, replaced with stripped-down acoustics that leaves Stevens exposed both musically, spiritually, and emotionally. The new album title consists of the names of his mother and his step-father and the important roles they both had in defining him as an individual and an artist. Stevens had a difficult relationship with his mother, who suffered from depression and mental illness, that was punctuated by an overwhelming sense of abandonment. In contrast, his step-father has been a source of stability in his life and is even the co-founder of his record label, Asthmatic Kitty.
In “Should Have Known Better”, Stevens directly tackles the pain and resentment of the past, expressing that he “should have wrote a letter / and grieve what I happen to grieve”. He sings of being left behind at a video store, clearly a broader representation of loss of a true relationship with his mother and memories that come with it. This song feels to be that letter, giving him the ability to release his emotions and to move on. The song ends on the line “Don’t back down: nothing can be changed” followed by “My brother had a daughter” / The beauty that she brings, illumination”. Stevens can still find beauty and reason to move on. A sentiment repeated throughout the album.
The theme of resolution continues on “Fourth of July”, where Stevens imagines talking to his mother on her death bed. To add to Stevens’ grief, Carrie Stevens passed away from cancer in 2012. Stevens did have sporadic contact with her but never the real relationship that he desired. The song focuses on the last moments of his mothers life as she explains and apologizes for her decisions. This is as exposed as an artist can get with Stevens adopting the persona of the child. His mother apologizes for leaving him and expresses death is natural. Mortality, both that of his loved ones and his own, seems to be explicitly on Stevens mind as he dwells on this with the fading line “we are all going to die”.
Stevens has sung and even spoken openly about his faith before. He has never been overt or obnoxious, but themes of redemption have often surfaced throughout his music. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” appears to be Stevens’ struggle with his own faith. He discusses his own transgressions stating, “Get drunk to get laid / I take one more hit when you depart”. It seems his own Christian faith is not shielding him completely from his grief and his own personal demons. He does not receive the “shade” he needs from the “Shadow of the Cross”, a realization that he can lean on his faith, but it will not shield him completely from suffering.
In contrast, “The Only Thing” seems to be Stevens’ faith bringing him full circle and providing him the strength to still find enjoyment and love within this world. He finds “Signs and wonders” that help him live with his ghosts. Again he lays out his feeling of despair and even contemplation of suicide. He declares “The only reason why I continue at all, faith and reason”. He points again to “signs and wonders” and “vail of great surprises lay forth”, revealing that the small worldly beauties he encounters each day are the things that help him to carry on.
Stevens has always been honest in his music but never this transparent, this exposed. His hushed almost cracking vocal delivery indicates a vulnerable soul, one struggling with loss, mortality, depression. He has not only removed the orchestration from prior works but any personal guard. This is a tricky position for an artist with threat of being too personal, which can distract the audience but Stevens execution is absolutely flawless. Easy pianos with haunting guitars gives this album amazing warmth and texture. It is quite simply a beautiful work of art.
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