Listen - 'Carrie & Lowell' by Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty 2015)

The latest Sufjan Stevens album Carrie & Lowell is named after his parents. Well, sort of. To be specific, it’s named after his mother, who left the family when Stevens was 1 year old, and the man she ended up with. Stevens wrote the album after her death, as he struggled to process both her passing, and the internal contradiction of feeling such immense grief at losing someone with whom he’d created so few memories, shared so little time. As he sings on the song All of Me and All of You: “Should we beat this or celebrate it?”

It’s my favourite Sufjan album. Those same delicate, cyclical guitar arpeggios which have been the foundation for so many of his songs are intact, but they’re both darker and, for me at least, more beautiful. Where previous records adorned this foundation with cheerful orchestral arrangements or abrasive electronica, Carrie & Lowell fills out the stereo spectrum with little more than a second acoustic guitar matching the first, as if to keep it company, and obsessively double tracked lead vocals. One feels that Stevens is singing and strumming along with himself because everything would just be too sad, too raw, without the extra ambience of a companion, even if the companion must be his own ghost vocal. The lyrics blend wisps of happy memory with jarring references to emotional dysfunction, self-destruction, and a deep sadness, all rendered beautiful by yearning melodies that never stoop to maudlin.

The first single No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross exemplifies the emotional complexity that can result from relatively unsubtle constituent parts. The singer castigates himself with sarcasm, (“Like a champion, get drunk to get laid,”) implores fate to connect him with his mother in any way possible, (“Drag me to hell in the valley of the damned, like my mother. . .”), imagines some invisible presence conspiring against him (“my assassin like Casper the ghost”), before concluding in the songs title that there is no grace to be found in the struggle to bare life’s burden. 
Yet as he passes through these lyrical stations of pain Stevens sings along with himself as sweetly, as angelically, as he ever has, leaving us with the impression that maybe it’s okay to celebrate what you can’t beat. It’s a nice feeling to get from a record. 

Simon C.

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