A cool breeze rustles the leafy canopy hanging over a grassy knoll. The shattered mid-morning sunlight is a kaleidoscope on a fallen log blanketed in moss. You hear a rush of water from a brook cascading nearby and a faint trill of a meadowlark in the distance.
You keep your eyes peeled through the gaps between the trees, quietly whispering a prayer to the forest that you’ll catch a glimpse of him today: that elusive, banjo-picking recluse who hasn’t released new music in over five years. And in one Eluardian instance you spot him, huddled between a grazing moose and a pack of feral rabbits tinkering out a simple melody on a tiny xylophone. It’s Sufjan Stevens.
Stevens is definitely some form of Bigfoot in the music realm. Known for his intricate and superfluous orchestrations, Stevens is considered by many to be one of the greatest singers/songwriters of this generation. He conjures up songs about American folklore, prophecies about the end of the world and his unstable relationship with God. At some point, Stevens proclaimed he would write an entire album for each of the 50 states but was halted by mental illness after his albums on Michigan and Illinois.
He’s mostly known for his folk singing, prominent in his earlier albums “Seven Swans” and “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” After a run-in with a debilitating mental disease, his style became more of an electronic freak out with multitudes of synth-y drumbeats and distorted keys as heard in “The Age of Adz.”
Adz was released over five years ago, and since then he’s picked up a few side projects, including “Sisyphus,” which is a collaboration between rapper Serengeti and music engineer Son Lux. Many of his listeners worried he had taken a step back from his folky roots for good. But in January, Stevens released a preview for his upcoming album on his Tumblr page. It sounded like a new dawn for his banjo-strumming folk tunes.
The preview features a sampling of the song “Carrie & Lowell,” which is a track off the new album with the same name. In the video, Stevens’ gentle guitar picking and feathery vocals are layered over grainy video scenes of the Oregon coast.
“Carrie & Lowell,” named after Stevens’ mother and step-dad, is said to be the return of his folk side. In a release by his record label Asthmatic Kitty, the album is said to be about love and life and Stevens’ late mother, Carrie, who suffered from schizophrenia and was absent for most of his life.
In mid February, the single “No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross” was released to the public, as well as a very in-depth personal interview with Stevens by Pitchfork.
“No Shade” is as raw and powerful as a deer carcass on the side of the road. It tears into your heart with lyrics delving into his self-destruction following the death of his mother. In his Pitchfork interview, Stevens explains his relationship with Carrie:
“In lieu of her death, I felt a desire to be with her, so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and f****ng around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her… I came to realize that I wasn’t possessed by her, or incarcerated by her mental illness. We blame our parents for a lot of [stuff], for better and for worse, but it’s symbiotic. Parenthood is a profound sacrifice.”
The language in “No Shade” is more turbulent than in his earlier works. An F-bomb is dropped, which is only seen in one other song of his. Lyrics like “Drive that stake through the center of my heart/ Lonely vampire inhaling its fire/ I’m chasing the dragon too far” are hard to follow at first but reference a deeper sense of drug abuse and longing to be free of “the dragon.”
He wants to become closer with his mother through this new album, and he’s taking us along for the ride. I have a feeling this could be his most personal album to date, and I’m not sure I’ll have enough tissues to wipe away the tears. “Carrie & Lowell” comes out March 31 on iTunes and Asthmatic Kitty records.