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Best New Music

  • Genre:


  • Label:

    Asthmatic Kitty

  • Reviewed:

    March 30, 2015

Sufjan Stevens has always written personally, weaving his life story into larger narratives, but here his autobiography is front and center. Carrie & Lowell is a return to the stripped-back folk of Seven Swans, but with a decade's worth of refinement and exploration packed into it.

Sufjan Stevens' new album, Carrie & Lowell, is his best. This is a big claim, considering his career: 2003's Michigan, 2004's stripped-down Seven Swans, 2005's Illinois, and 2010's knotty electro-acoustic collection The Age of Adz. He's also had residencies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, collaborated with rappers and the National, donned wings and paint-splattered dayglo costumes, and released Christmas albums. But none of those side projects were ultimately ever as interesting, or effective, as when Sufjan was just Sufjan, a guy with a guitar or piano, well-detailed lyrics, and a gorgeous whisper that could reach into a heartbreaking falsetto.

Part of what makes Carrie & Lowell so great is that it comes after all of those things—the wings, the orchestras—but it feels like you're hearing him for the first time again, and in his most intimate form. This record is a return to the sparse folk of Seven Swans, but with a decade's worth of honing and exploration packed into it. It already feels like his most classic and pure effort.

By now the album's main narrative is well-known. Carrie & Lowell is titled after Stevens' mother and stepfather. Carrie was bipolar and schizophrenic and suffered from drug addiction and substance abuse. She died of stomach cancer in 2012, but had abandoned Stevens much earlier, first when he was 1, then later, repeatedly ("when I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store," he sings on "Should Have Known Better"). His stepfather, Lowell Brams, was married to Carrie for five years when Sufjan was a child. As a testament to the importance of his role in Stevens' life, Brams currently runs Stevens' label, Asthmatic Kitty, and shows up repeatedly in the record, most poignantly on the title track, where Stevens frames those five years as his "season of hope."

Stevens has always written personally, weaving his life story into larger narratives, but here his autobiography, front and center, is itself the grand history. The songs explore childhood, family, grief, depression, loneliness, faith, and rebirth in direct and unflinching language that matches the scaled-back instrumentation. There are Biblical references, and references to mythology, but most of it is squarely about Stevens and his family. A few of the songs ("Carrie & Lowell", "Eugene", "All of Me Wants All of You") mention the summer trips to Oregon that Stevens made, between the ages of five and eight, with Carrie, Lowell, and his brother. There are Oregon-specific references to Eugene, the Tillamook Burn forest fires, Spencer Butte, the Lost Blue Bucket Mine, and swimming lessons with a man who calls him Subaru. These were moments when Stevens was closest to his mother, or at least in most constant proximity to her, and he recorded some of Carrie & Lowell's tracks on an iPhone in a hotel in Klamath Falls, Oregon, as if trying to find a way to recreate those moments one more time.

Other songs focus on an adult Stevens coping with the aftermath of those early years, and the blankness his mother's distance and death left in him. He beats himself up for not trying harder to be closer earlier. On "Should Have Known Better" he sings "I should have wrote a letter/ Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling." He talks about his own drinking ("Now I'm drunk and afraid/ Wishing the world would go away") and drug abuse, disconnected relationships ("You checked your text while I masturbated"), self-loathing, and emptiness ("In a manner of speaking I'm dead"). There are suicidal thoughts (arm cutting, driving a car off a cliff, drowning, and questions like "Do I care if I survive this?"), which he pushes away with his faith and by focusing on the wonders around him ("Sea lion caves in the dark," the hysterical light of Eugene, Oregon). There is a lot of blood. Some broken bones. Tears. There is also a constant need to be closer—to his mother, to himself, to the world around him—even when it seems useless: "What's the point of singing songs/ If they'll never even hear you?" ("Eugene"). The other main character here is his brother, Marzuki Stevens, and his daughter, Sufjan's niece, who provides the one true moment of joy on the record: "My brother had a daughter/ The beauty that she brings, illumination" ("Should Have Known Better").

As he told Pitchfork, "With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe. It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life." On the second to last track, "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross", he sings, in falsetto, "Fuck me I'm falling apart," and it is maybe the barest, most honest declaration you'll hear on a record this year.~~

His relationship, or lack thereof, with his mother is complex: He never hates her. He feels her everywhere: She passes through him as an apparition, and everything comes back to her in one way or another. "I love you more than the world can contain/ In its lonely and ramshackle head," he sings. He doesn't cast blame. "Fourth of July", a tender song about her death, is filled with terms of endearment ("my little hawk," "my firefly"), and questions about how he can raise her from the dead and then make the most of his own life, before he ends the song by repeating, soberly, "We're all gonna die."

The lyrics here are masterful and carefully shorn, and the music is as well. Stevens is joined by Laura Veirs, S. Carey, Thomas Bartlett, and others, but they come off as ghosts in the room around his carefully constructed soundscapes, compositions that tastefully blend acoustic and electronic elements that grow deeper with each listen. There are pianos, organs, starry washes, smears of synthesizers, clicking percussion, unidentifiable pulses, doubled vocals, soaring background harmonies, and quickly picked acoustic guitars that will remind you of Elliott Smith. In the past he'd get showy with multi-part suites or huge arrangements; the writing here is just as ambitious, but never showy. You often forget the music's there, but when you don't, it's catchy, inventive, melodic, seamless. The haunting production, too, is minimal but fathomless.

Stevens has been making music for a long time, and Carrie & Lowell shines a light back on the rest of his oeuvre. You realize the story of Michigan's "Romulus" is heartbreakingly real, down to its references to Oregon ("Once when our mother called/ She had a voice of last year's cough/ We passed around the phone/ Sharing a word about Oregon"), and that desperate desire for even one touch: "Once when we moved away/ She came to Romulus for a day/ Her Chevrolet broke down/ We prayed it'd never be fixed or be found/ We touched her hair." He loves his mother, and is ashamed of her, and can't stop loving her. It's one example of many, and when you re-listen to the past albums, and songs like "The Seer's Tower" and its once mysterious "Oh, my mother, she betrayed us, but my father loved and bathed us," it acts as a skeleton key to what was once an ineffable sadness. As he put it in "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.": "Even in my best behavior I am really just like him/ Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." Here are those secrets laid bare.

There is a photo in the booklet of a young Stevens, at the table, eating a banana. It's one of a few photos in the booklet that seem to depict some of those Oregon summers: a beach spotted with rocks, a small half-painted wooden house near trees and hills. His look is not happy or sad; he's just a kid at a table, eating. But there's something melancholic there, something maybe you add onto it after listening to Carrie & Lowell, but something real nonetheless: His mother is standing beside him. She's not looking at him, but she's there. (She appears in three shots, and in none of them can you see her eyes.) You imagine Lowell took the picture (on the back of the booklet you see his reflection in the mirror of a photo taken of Carrie crocheting). It's a haunting feeling that that little kid, years later, would create a masterpiece so knowing about suffering, sadness, death, and loneliness. In that photo, though, he's still a kid, with all those kid hurts, trying to make sense of the world. And, at least for that moment, he's close to his mother. And it seems like maybe he's happy.