How well do we know Sufjan Stevens—or perhaps rather, what comes to mind when we hear his name? We could maintain that he’s that indie artist behind those fluttering compositions that involve grandiose orchestras, like a modern revision of baroque but with literal bells and whistles attached. We could credit him with the vocals and chord progressions that have assumed the label “easy listening music,” but also remember he was most recently seen adorned entirely in neon tape and singing about the end of the world. To some extent, Stevens can be identified as the trailblazer of his own genre, hardly stepping into the same artistic endeavor twice. So what have we discovered about him with this year’s highly anticipated release of Carrie & Lowell?
It was never very difficult to perceive that there was a far more hollowed-out Sufjan Stevens between the clashing and empowering layers of sounds that brought him prominent attention. His 2003 release Michigan was the first and one of the more intimate instances in which we saw songwriting that was pained, and maybe we simply attributed it to some notion that all those who write and choose to sing about it must just have their demons. But rather than being a revelation and a novel approach, Carrie & Lowell completes a narrative that could just barely be pieced together from tracks strewn across each record released. It’s an amassed finale— there are no more hints, no more secrets which Stevens wishes to extol to those willing to listen.
Those who attribute Sufjan Stevens’ best work to his time focused on an acoustic sound rejoice a record that is calm and calculating, and just barely a decibel above a whisper. The album makes its introduction with “Death with Dignity,” and is airy and quick, almost deceivingly happy. Through the first few tracks and prominently up to “Eugene”, the record is established not as a method of grieving but a way to uphold an experience so that it receives righteous appreciation—riddled by a kind of tortured reflection that still manages to elicit a concealed smirk. Stevens makes sure to show profound respect and prove his admiration for Lowell, his stepfather and the second dedicatee of the album with lines like, “Like a father he led community water on my head/and he called me ‘Subaru.’” It’s a trusting and swift realization that there is little to be interpreted in this album, and that we are only meant to listen.
“Fourth of July” marks the shift in divulging deeper into Carrie’s death, explicitly disclosing details of the day of her passing. As if sung directly to Carrie, the perspective of the song is utterly and unnervingly intimate, making it feel like a breach of privacy to even consume or discuss its contents. The lyrics follow along a repetition of piano chords you would likely notice during the most aching cinematic scenes, stretched and looming but relinquishing power before any verging culmination. The wrenching and minimal “John My Beloved” proves to be equally as honest and heartbreaking, just as slow and measured in progression and notably fading out with an audible release of breath.
Arguably containing some his best songwriting, Stevens is continually posing affirmations of love and adoration in his most distraught and apologetic state, singing “I love you more than the world can contain/In its lonely and ramshackle head.” It’s a true and unyielding testament to Sufjan Stevens’ talent that something so sincerely personal manages to find its own path of devastation to the listener.
Perhaps Carrie & Lowell is not the indie album meant for the mass consumption with which we are familiar. As with any story, its impact is only gathered by the investment we are willing to advance. Without a close regard for the lyrics, we’ve been given a melodically pleasing album, where the crashing and climactic effects of Age of Adz we may have expected are tucked away. What sounds like sampled waves tossing on a beach proves to be sound of a running air conditioner in Stevens’ New York apartment—proof that there’s no deliberate spectacle here, but never subtracting from his ability to present glowing and complex instrumentation. Through Carrie & Lowell, we’ve added a new dimension of Sufjan into our psyche, one which will likely touch upon any prospective compositions. It’s an album with potential realized in the privacy of our bedrooms, or in the lackluster of a morning commute. And if there’s one promise a Sufjan Stevens album can deliver upon, it’s that you’ll be hearing it in your favorite coffee shop for years to come.
Key tracks: “Fourth of July,” “John My Beloved,” “Only Thing”
“John My Beloved”: