Sufjan Stevens is, undoubtedly, one of the most prolific singer-songwriters currently plying their trade. He’s also demonstrably among the most creatively varied of them, bouncing from the indie folk stylings of Illinois and Michigan to flirtations with electronica in Enjoy Your Rabbit and The Age of Adz, fitting in a tone-poem and film based on beloved New York motorway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expessway (The BQE) along the way.
It’s not delivered with any sense of irony – or false modesty – then, when he kicks off Carrie & Lowell, his seventh studio album proper, by admitting “I don’t know where to begin.”
If I’m honest, neither do I. From the first twang of the nylon strings that accompany opener ‘Death With Dignity’ it’s at least clear that the album marks a return to what made the Michigan songster’s music so attractive in the first place: namely precision-crafted songs with a wash of biographical lyrical content. Stevens’ eye is turned much closer to home than the state-defining figures of Illinois or Michigan, this time, however. Carrie & Lowell is named for Stevens’ late mother, who passed away in 2012, and stepfather, both pictured on the front cover, and is an intimate and excruciating examination of their lives.
At its lyrical heart, it’s a record about love, loss and a bereft singer’s attempts to make sense of it all, caught somewhere between autobiographical fact and reigned-in flights of fancy. “With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” Stevens told Pitchfork back in January. ‘This is not my art project; this is my life.”
First track ‘Death With Dignity’ lets Sufjan set out this emotional stall for the remainder with restraint and balance. The acknowledgement that ‘every road leads to an end’ or question of ‘what is that song you sing for the dead?’ are counterbalanced by glimpses of moments on the road to Oregon on a family road trip, or Carrie’s fleeting presence at the window. It tees up the record perfectly, not as a wallow in misery or a bombastic celebration of life and death and love, but as something fully realized and in-between.
Even if not evident in his words, Stevens’ pared-down sound makes this clearer yet. Gone are whirring drums and clunks, the booming horns and cacophonic woodwind of The Age of Adz, but kept is his unerring ear for texture and tone. Every instrument or sound from the trebly, high-register and finger-picked guitar that accompanies several songs through to the squat synths of ‘Drawn to the Blood’ is hand-picked to match each composition and given space to breathe. Some may call it sparse instrumentation, but it never fails to sound full and whole.
More wowing than that, though, is how Stevens has refocused the crescendos and shuddering climaxes of his earlier writing into shaped songs that ebb and flow but, crucially, never explode. Though ‘Drawn to the Blood’ has a pumping, guitar-driven heartbeat, it eventually subsides into an array of synths and strings, chords suspended and unresolved until finally unfurling for a single, triumphant trumpet note. It’s more powerful than the way that ‘Chicago’, for example, unloads its instrumental salvos at once; rather, it’s an exercise in gently lifting the listener up to its conclusion. Stevens, meanwhile, offers a forlorn call up to God, his speaker unable to reconcile gnawing, physical desire with the divine object of his affections. ‘Like light to the sun’ is the comparison he draws, reaffirming that ‘my prayer has always been love'.
It’s powerful stuff, in short, but immensely gratifying to listen to. It’s played out, too, in ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, a mesh of interweaving images of love and devotion, some of which the speaker finds gross and degrading, others freeing and wonderful. Throughout, an auto-harp and washed out guitar are joined piecemeal by other voices, chorus-heavy tremolo and single picks of an electric guitar, dropped in and left to reverberate like rippling water. It’s like a heavy, lithium-slow strip-tease – ‘Revelation may come true’, sings Stevens – without the implied seediness.
Songs become centered around emotional turns rather than huge moments of relief or angst. It’s the subtle lyrical shift of ‘Fourth of July’, trading the pet names scrawled in love letters for the understanding that they’re all that will remain now that ‘we’re all gonna die’, or the slow build and release of lower strings and horns in ‘The Only Thing’. It reconfigures ‘Should Have Known Better’ – which meandered and lost it’s way when released as a standalone album preview – into a far deeper listen, with chirpy keys ripped right from Illinois.
This goes to for another teased track, ‘No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross’. On first listen, it could unkindly be called insubstantial, or at least lacking in the clout that Stevens often conjures in his darker, sadder songs. Now, though, properly placed between the percussive ‘John My Beloved’ and conciliatory, soaring ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’, it’s a more significant moment in the album and, arguably, Sufjan at his most honest. The brief slowing and caesura between each verse becomes a struggling breath, each string entry a tug on the heartstrings, each image of self-immolation – ‘I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart’ – ever more destructive. Stevens’ ‘Fuck me, I’m falling apart’ is more deadpan and more matter of fact, and more devastating than it ever was when heard as a standalone Spotify highlight.
In all, it’s a hard record to do justice to with the written word, and one that barely needs introduction or recommendation. Carrie & Lowell is Stevens in a lower and more intimate register than he’s ever been, akin to the bare-all cry of ‘John Wayne Gacey Jr.’, but brought across with intricate care and attention at all times. It’s the work of an artist reaching complete maturity, one that deserves and asks your full attention. In the end, it’s achingly beautiful.
Words by Laurie Havelock