Sufjan Stevens Carrie & Lowell
(Asthmatic Kitty Records- March 31, 2015)
(Contemporary Folk, Indie Rock)
Review by Jared John Buchholz
What is it that people like about Sufjan Stevens?
When it comes to his music, there are generally two stances one takes; the first stance…adoration, the second…boredom. If you play a Sufjan album, you are generally able to make the conclusion of what it will consist of: the angelic voice, the rhyme scheming lyrics, that finger picking of a banjo/guitar. All of these are presumably essential to a Sufjan song. All of these are reasons why people love Sufjan. All of these are reasons one falls asleep to his voice, lullabying, cooing the individual to sleep. All of these are reasons, during a soft rain, in which Sufjan is about as essential as a down filled blanket to warm your soul and toes. But all of these are the reasons behind why others find him to be boring. Yes, there’s massive creativity, abounding within his mind, upon his fingers, but again, creativity aside, some people want chaos, disorder, noise pure and simple. This is not who Sufjan Stevens is. And truth be told, whenever the musician that Sufjan is decides to step away from familiarity or from he who is, it is obvious. It isn’t good. There were many with this sentiment in regards to his last album The Age of Adz, released almost five years ago.
With this in mind someone who is pondering a listen to his newest album Carrie & Lowell, should first take into account of how they have felt about Sufjan Stevens in the past (besides the The Age of Adz). The album isn’t necessarily anything new, but then again, it is. However, if you’re expecting Sufjan Stevens to make a jump, to take that leap, across the chasm, to the other side of what he isn’t, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re not one of these people, prepare yourself for wonder.
Carrie & Lowell is simple. But there’s such beauty in simplicity and beauty abounds throughout every song. It’s rare that an album these days has such continuity throughout it, but Carrie & Lowell is continuously beautiful. It is continuously mournful. It is continuously haunting. But even more important, it is continuously unexpected.
What is meant by unexpected? The album features these almost out of nowhere bridges, these interludes that suddenly take shape and continue on growing in grandeur. They do seemingly come from nowhere; the evidence of this, showcased in every conclusion of each track just about. Besides track five “Eugene” and then the seventh track “The Only Thing”, there’s this switch within the song. The guitar/banjo/piano/whatever instrument stops. It needs to be said that just about every song begins much like those from his Seven Swans album, as if he was returning the very roots of who he is. But unlike Seven Swans, and unlike the diversified Michigan and Illinois albums, there’s a subtle, electronic change. Now the change isn’t the dance/let’s get some Molly/ bass thump headache/Passion Pit crap kind. It’s more reminiscent of perhaps 2001 Space Odyssey and going along with the sci-fi references, all of it for some reason oddly conjures up images of the cosmos. The airiness, the emptiness, the strings, the stretched out gorgeous notes, all of it brings to mind those thoughts when you gaze into the heavens, put away your phone, and start to think for the first time in perhaps weeks. This is the thing about Carrie & Lowell. There are two songs, the aforementioned tracks that are strictly typical Sufjan songs. There’s nothing wrong with this. Again they’re great Sufjan songs. But the others…they are unexpected. They are rather different than anything he’s displayed before, but not because of how they begin, but how they end. This in itself is enough for any Sufjan fan to begin frothing at the mouth. For even though they are different, they are still blatantly and beautifully everything that is Sufjan Stevens.
There are a few songs, which encompass this beauty through and through, perhaps greater so than the rest. In particular “Drawn to the Blood” might be the greatest song he’s ever made, and this is saying a lot, in relation to the catalogue he’s produced. For some reason Elliot Smith comes to the ear, again though, mixed with that scene from Interstellar, when Matthew McConaughey is floating through the improbable black hole. The “Fourth of July” has that feel, as if one is understanding for the first time that there is something essential to everything, to living, but that it will end, hence his lovely line, “…we’re all gonna die.” Then there’s “John My Beloved”, which picks up, in relation to feeling, right where “Fourth of July” ended. Even the way in which the song abruptly ends, Sufjan taking a breath as if to go on (but not going on), is perfect.
The undertones throughout all of the songs seems to be a longing for what could have been. The feeling is obvious, and the album is incredibly personal in the lyrical sense. Its focus is related to Sufjan’s estranged relationship with his now having passed away mother, who left him when he was only a child. However it’s also about his stepfather, whom, even today, remains a pivotal part of his life. This biographical realty is from where the album’s name derives. The album is a gateway for the listener to look in the heart of the artist.
Carrie & Lowell is the return of Sufjan Stevens. He never left. But Carrie & Lowell is the essence of who he is. Yes, occasionally he’ll make a cheesy Greek mythology reference, sometimes the rhyme/words used might seem childish, and if you take offense to his religious references, well, you probably weren’t a fan of Sufjan to begin with. But what makes Sufjan great, and unmistakably Sufjan, is Sufjan himself, being Sufjan. This is what Carrie & Lowell is. It’s simple and beautiful. Beautiful simplicity.