Sufjan Stevens’ album gives lesson on solitude and dispair
As captivating as a meadowlark, or as elusive as a jackalope, the ever-migrating patterns that Sufjan Stevens’ music adapts from glorifying mythical fantasy to cripplingly authentic lachrymose.
Stevens’ musical resume is restless, to say the least. Between his dauntingly ambitious 50 States Project — a plan to write an album for every state in America — and his trippy cacophony of instrumental chaos on “Enjoy your Rabbit,” — which represented the symbols of the Chinese zodiac — Stevens has never been someone to shy away from experimentation.
In his latest attempt to convey the grief that the world continually bestows upon us all, Stevens’ latest release, “Carrie & Lowell,” involves the feather-voiced singer giving a lesson on solitude and coping with death and despair.
The album acutely measures the sorrow Stevens felt in the aftermath of his mother Carrie’s death in the later months of 2012, who after a lifelong battle with substance abuse and mental illness, succumbed to the cumulative damage of bad habits. The songs on “Carrie & Lowell” are absent of frilly fanfare and American folklore references, as depicted on previous albums such as “Come On! Feel the Illinoise” and “Greetings From Michigan.” Instead, Stevens brutally tells things like they are as he clamors to gain closeness to his late mother.
Although the new album is the acclaimed folky return of Stevens, the spirituality that we saw in “Seven Swans” is lacking if not altogether absent in the new album. In an amazingly personal interview with Pitchfork, Stevens gets real about his relationship with God:
“I still describe myself as a Christian, and my love of God and my relationship with God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith. Yes, the kingdom of Christianity and the Church has been one of the most destructive forces in history, and there are levels of bastardization of religious beliefs. But the unique thing about Christianity is that it is so amorphous and not reductive to culture or place or anything. It’s extremely malleable.”
From the get go, the beginning track “Death With Dignity” finds Stevens contemplating death with the delicate Dickensian gusto. “I forgive you mother, I can hear you/ and I long to be near you,” he recites.
Swelling vocals accompany a slide guitar to finish off the intro with a melancholic note.
Another high note, “Should Have Known Better” is split into two sections. One recounts moments of Stevens’ mother being negligent toward her children: “When I was 3/ 3, maybe 4 she left us at that video store.” The song breaks into bright piano clicks and a cheerful Casiotone beat as the bereaved singer chants in a beautiful chorus, “Don’t back down/ Nothing can be changed/ My brother had a daughter/ the beauty that she brings, illumination,” as if to pat himself on the back and remind him that life is still beautiful.
“All of Me Wants All of You” is a possible flashback to one of Stevens’ sexual misadventures. “You check your texts while I masturbated” puts the mundane nature of a failing relationship to verse. Stevens feels translucent to the character Manelich, comparing himself to “a ghost you walk right through.”
“What did I do to deserve this,” “Tell me what I have done,” “We’re all going to die,” “I just wanted to be near you,” and other heart-wrenching phrases are scattered among the foliage of the singer’s fallout that is “Carrie & Lowell.“ The breathtaking imagery that Stevens procures in the listener’s mind on his latest album is the stand-out cause of its astoundingly clear message. Stevens’ words become his eyes in the listener’s mind, and suddenly we see the world from his artistic perspective.
Of course, even in agonizing sorrow, some of Stevens’ sweet humor shimmers through the cracks of this tombstone effigy. In the song “Eugene,” he thinks back to a time when his stepfather Lowell couldn’t pronounce his first name, singing “He called me Subaru.” He does this not only to bring things back to reality with lines that make your heart weep, but also to add realism to his very real story. “What’s the point of singing these songs if they’ll never even hear you?” he sings, echoing the harsh words of his unaccepting and confused parents.
The low point of the album — and by low I mean most emotionally jarring —veers into your soul like a jackknifed semi-truck. “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” summarizes Stevens’ disappointment in himself for following his mother’s reckless tug-of-war with narcotics after her death. The lyrics, “There’s blood on that blade/ F*** me, I’m falling apart” shatter all notions of Stevens being in control of his emotions. In the song, he reconciles his tormenting past of trying to parent his parents and exclaims that he’s been “chasing that dragon too far.”
Biblical imagery, such as the whined “roses in Aaron’s beard” and “Hell in the valley of the Dalles,” is a slight departure from the disguised, myth-inspired Stevens we’re used to, but the truth of his sadness overshadows any chance of returning to a more narrative path like we see in “A Sun Came.”
Although there are enough references to Oregon to pass as a piece of the 50 States project, Stevens paints too vividly a picture of death and mortality to obscure it with trivial American themes. There can never be enough sessions of therapy to get us through the ramshackle misery that defines “Carrie & Lowell,” and I know many die-hard Stevens fans will be sobbing for a long time to come, whether it be outwardly or on the inside. What sets this album apart from his previous releases is the proximity to death and dealing with real, raw and revolting emotion.