Sufjan Stevens explores grief, reconciliation in new album

John Bosworth

Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell, bursts at the seams with the most valuable resource for singer-songwriters: human feelings. By the end of the record, Stevens has covered an extraordinary amount of emotional ground. There’s nostalgia, there’s love and, above all else, there’s anguish.

This anguish, which Sufjan expresses in plain, simple language, never feels cheap or affected. Stevens, a Brooklyn-based artist, named the album after his mother — a schizophrenic drug addict who left him when he was a toddler — and his stepfather. After her death in 2012, Stevens was thrust into a spiral of grief, substance abuse and despair. Carrie & Lowell is the unflinchingly autobiographical product of his mourning.

Carrie’s ghost envelops these songs like a thick fog. Stevens sings of grief, death, blood, God, drug addiction, mental illness and suicide. “I’m chasing the dragon too far,” he sings despairingly in the album’s penultimate track, “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” — a declaration of his hollowness in the aftermath of his mother’s death. This kind of darkness isn’t all-consuming, however, Stevens weaves his sadness into his childhood memories of sunny summer visits to his mother in Oregon. The album’s constant dialogue between past and present creates a rich tapestry of memory, loss and reconciliation.

Upon first listen, this richness isn’t immediately apparent. Despite their emotional urgency, the songs themselves are slow, brooding, even plain. They are stripped bare of the literal bells and whistles of his previous albums. Gone are the whimsical orchestral arrangements of 2005’s Illinoise. Gone is the blaring techno-folk chaos of 2010’s Age of Adz. The few instruments featured have a tingling quietude about them. This sparse sound departs from his previous work, and it works. The skeletal nature of the instrumentation allows the honesty of his lyrics to breathe.

Stevens’ voice shimmers at the forefront of every song, giving shape to his pain, sounding more nude and vulnerable than ever before. It retains a gentle, crystalline beauty throughout the album, even with lines as confessional as “You checked your texts while I masturbated.” He scatters these kinds of unembellished confessional lyrics generously throughout the record. They pull the listener further into the record’s intimacy.

In “The Fourth of July,” he repeatedly croons, “We’re all gonna die,” a fact Stevens never lets his album’s listeners forget. The effectiveness of moments such as this cement Stevens’ status as one of the great, super-sad guitar boys of our time. These moments prove there’s a reason he’s so commonly compared to sad boy masters such as Nick Drake and Elliot Smith. Stevens, like them, is capable of distilling roiling oceans of beautiful pain into simple snippets of language and melody.

These snippets, along with the bracing minimalism of its instrumentation, give Carrie & Lowell its strange and shimmering kind of power. These songs hover in that gorgeous space between body and soul, mystery and enlightenment, anger and forgiveness. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings in the opening verse of the album. But he has already begun, and he continues going for another 10 songs. This is his journey. We’re lucky to be able to take it with him.

Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: Carrie & Lowell

Tracks: 11

Rating: 9/10