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  • Genre:


  • Label:

    Asthmatic Kitty

  • Reviewed:

    May 3, 2017

Documenting the South Carolina stop of the Carrie & Lowell tour, this audiovisual album takes a record that thrived on simplicity and adorns it with glowsticks, but each track retains a subtle beauty.

“I got so little pleasure out of writing and recording the album that I feel like I’m due some enjoyment,” Sufjan Stevens said before embarking on the full-band tour behind his heartbreaking 2015 record Carrie & Lowell. The 11 songs on Carrie & Lowell featured multiple backup singers and instrumentalists, but they retained an almost voyeuristic sense of intimacy, exploring the ways death affects our lives. Stevens mostly shied away from seeking resolution, instead focusing on the shame, regret, and loneliness that can accompany grief. The emotional core of the record came at the end of a song called “Fourth of July.” As the music faded around him, Stevens sounded alone and inconsolable, repeating a simple truth: “We’re all gonna die.”

That moment transforms on Carrie & Lowell Live, an audiovisual document from the South Carolina stop of the album’s tour. Here, Stevens lets the outro of “Fourth of July” build instead of dissipate. If not quite a happy ending, it’s at least a cathartic one—his mantra now backed by pummeling drums and a chorus of voices. This transformation underscores the difference between Stevens’ records and his shows. While even his most elaborate albums feel hushed and solitary, his concerts are communal experiences. On stage, he’ll dress up his band as cheerleaders and strap a giant pair of wings on his back; he’ll take dancing cues from Justin Bieber and cover a hit song by Drake. Carrie & Lowell Live—while highlighting the starkest, saddest songs Stevens has ever written—reflects that side of his personality like no other release. This juxtaposition makes it a compelling listen and a fitting companion to a deep, multifaceted record.

On Carrie & Lowell, tracks segued into each other with haunted anti-solos: ghosting away to reveal one isolated melody or instrument. On the live album, Stevens takes the opposite approach, expanding and amplifying every moment. The wispy pedal steel coda to “Death With Dignity” is sung in unison by his whole band with the force of a prayer, while the second half of “Should Have Known Better”—a chintzy keyboard melody on the record—gets turned into an escalating anthem with a round of vocalists. “All of Me Wants All of You” and “Carrie & Lowell” are both embellished with long, spacey synth solos, while “Blue Bucket of Gold” gets its own 18-minute reprise. The effect is somewhat jarring: taking a record that thrived on simplicity and adorning it with glowsticks. But it’s a testament to Stevens’ songwriting that each track retains its subtlety and beauty in this context.

The Carrie & Lowell tour highlighted the album’s unique place in his catalog, featuring every song from the record and only a small sampling of earlier material. Those additions are whittled down further here to just an interstitial track from Michigan—the wordless “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou),” used as an intro—and two selections from 2010’s dystopian, electronic opus The Age of Adz. The Adz songs sound surprisingly at home alongside Carrie & Lowell’s more autobiographical material, and not just because of the new synth makeovers. “Futile Devices” arrives near the end of the set and adds an element of desperation to Stevens’ struggles to express his feelings, recounting memories of sleeping on couches and watching a loved one crochet. In “Vesuvius,” Stevens refers to himself in the third person (“Sufjan, follow your heart/Follow the flame or fall on the floor”), and it feels like a pep talk: a reminder that there’s more ground to cover, more life to live.

Stevens once made an important distinction between Carrie & Lowell and his earlier work, stating, “This is not my art project; this is my life.” The live album feels a lot more like an art project—especially the film accompaniment, with its psychedelic light show and collage-like projections of home videos. During the performance, Stevens rarely addresses the audience; instead he mimics the record’s seamless flow and lets his songs speak for themselves. One of his only remarks arrives during the closing rendition of “Hotline Bling” with singer/songwriter Gallant, and it’s a simple bit of levity (“Let me see your best Drake impression,” Stevens says, “Something like this...”). At the end of his set, he’s no closer to finding peace or answering the questions that torment him throughout these songs. But he’s surrounded by friends, and he’s enjoying himself.