It has taken years of cult adoration for Sufjan Stevens to reach the point that he is at in his career. Arguably one of the most eclectic artists of our time, Stevens has embodied the spirit of modern indie music. Difficult to pin down, yet enthralling to all of those who embrace his abilities as a songwriter, he has pushed himself in ways that few others have. His success has weaved its way through his growth, stemming from the traditional sensibilities of Michigan and Seven Swans, all the way to the unwavering, orchestral, and electronic intricacies of Illinois and The Age of Adz. This intense work ethic also resulted in his hip-hop project Sisyphus, countless Christmas records, and a variety of other sidesteps along the way. Stevens has become a stalwart of the indie scene, whose intimacy and musical abilities have transcended traditional creative bounds.
Certainly, it is tough to justify such lofty expectations to someone unfamiliar with Stevens and his music, but for those who have appreciated his various works through the years, the announcement of Carrie & Lowell, his first album in five years, was met with great excitement and intrigue. In what is billed as a return to his indie folk roots, Stevens seeks to emanate the same trappings that drew listeners to his earlier, unplugged works, and maintain the charm that brought the fortune behind his more extravagant compositions. Here, Stevens doesn’t try to rehash the past. Instead, we get a captivating, sparsely-packed, yet densely-emotional album that stands as some of his finest work as a musician.
With the draw of an indie folk comeback, many look to 2004’s Seven Swans as a basis of comparison for Carrie & Lowell. While he has deviated in his stylistic ambition over the course of his career, the same intimacy, God-isms, and quality of output have struck through each of his albums. Even with all of his experimentation, we have seen the guitar and banjo recur through the years. However, it has been eleven years since we’ve seen Stevens just sit down with a few instruments and sing for us. Given all of this, he never makes the same album twice, and in no way is Carrie & Lowell a sequel or recreation of Seven Swans.
In 2012, Stevens’ mother Carrie passed away. Leaving Stevens and his father when he was one year old, his and Carrie’s relationship was one defined by her remarrying to his stepfather Lowell and her struggles with mental illness. Stevens recalled it all in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, which alludes to the various themes of disconnect and difficulty that he discusses on this record. It is indeed intensive to dig this deep into the backstory of this record, but he speaks with such subtlety and sorrow that it becomes difficult to ignore. One can question his decision to go back to the basics, and it seems to ring to the conscious conversation Stevens has with himself when creating music. Rather than capture us with the excitement and bravado of ambitious, orchestral compositions, complete with extended literary allusions and storytelling, he draws his sticks to his simplest form of song, putting everything he can on the table; no frills and no distractions.
What results is a record filled with soft-spoken vocals, subdued instrumentation, and subtly perfect production value. It is even simpler than “To Be Alone with You” or “Casimir Pulaski Day”, as Stevens really makes it about the different pieces that he puts together to write his songs, focusing on the different things that have affected him over the past few years. While God is a present force, we don’t find ourselves with “Elliot Smith after ten years of Sunday school”. If anything, Stevens is challenged by his faith, and seeks to find himself in it once more.
There is a sense of disembodiment within Stevens. We hear his uncertainty and downtrodden affect in his voice, as much of the album deals with his parents and growing up, both as a child and an adult. His relationship with Carrie was nothing more than a series of visits to Oregon and her occasional visits from time to time. Even though she and Lowell split up, Stevens’ stepfather remains a force within his life, assisting with the operation of Asthmatic Kitty, the record label that Stevens runs. He pays tribute to him, and the summers spent in Oregon on the beautiful “Eugene”, where he fondly recalls “the man who taught [him] to swim”, and wanting “to be near [him]”, away from being “drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away”. His fears of loss toil with him on a personal level, looking back on the best of what has passed him. Even suffering through the loss of “fiction, future and prediction” that junior high brings, it is all lost in his “fading supply”, resolute knowing that “we’re all gonna to die”, he sings on “Fourth of July”.
Stevens has developed a knack for lyrical strength, and Carrie & Lowell’s very personal direction brings words that carry intense emotional depth, enhanced by the sheer elegance of his minimal instrumentation. Little more than soft banjos and orchestral accents accompany his whispers on “The Only Thing”. He brings forth a slew of confusion and disconnect, his distance from complete loss is defined by the different pieces of life that he finds apathy in. The questions of “do I care if I despise this?” and “do I care if I survive this?” speak loudly through his tinny whisper, a whisper that shaves down to loathing of how he sees and feels Carrie in the world he lives in, unsure of whether he can put up with all much longer.
We feel the same sense of emotional exposure from the opener “Death with Dignity”, where the optimistic tune stands in contrast to how he’s “lost [his] strength completely”, as his mother’s “apparition passes through [him] in the willows”. It is his loss of Carrie that takes us to the days of his youth, where he discovered himself and faced the brunt of his relationship with his mother and stepfather. From Carrie’s abandoning of Stevens at a video store in “Should Have Known Better”, to the allusions to his sexuality on “All of Me Wants All of You” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, the themes here are as personal as we’ve seen. He manages to maintain the literary and theological allusions we’ve grown accustomed to, but their inclusion throughout Carrie & Lowell feel deliberate and deeply drawn, augmenting their effect on what he sings and how he sings it.
For all of the intensive investigation one can do of the eleven songs on this record, what makes them stick is in their execution. Stevens is in top form here, his songwriting maintaining its strength and luster in its minimal, folksy style. Immensely personal and emotionally wrenching, Stevens makes the simple and friendly melodies meaningful and appealing. By listening to these songs over and over again, one can find a little bit more each and every time. While it doesn’t have the expansive musicality behind Illinois and The Age of Adz, it has equally intensive emotional scope, and different lyrics will stick for extended periods of time with each listen. Sufjan Stevens has experienced a lot in the past few years, and this whirlwind time finds itself channeled well on Carrie & Lowell. This album is not only one of his best, but it is one of the best of the year so far, and will stick with profound strength in listeners everywhere.