Sufjan Stevens’ deep dive into death on “Carrie & Lowell”.
Disclaimer: I’m an unabashed Sufjan super-fan.
I know there were many of us out there hoping this latest effort, out March 31, 2015 on Asthmatic Kitty Records, was a return to Sufjan’s early 2000’s form. While there is plenty of banjo strummin’ to keep the purists from tuning out, Carrie & Lowell marks a fairly significant departure from the folk innocence we’ve all come to know and love.
Admittedly not more so than 2010’s techno-glitch-heavy Age of Adz, mind you, but that record at least had plenty of Sufjan’s trademark lightheartedness spaced evenly between it’s drabber moments. “Too Much” and “Get Real, Get Right” were good examples, even if he tried to drown that eagerness out with beeps and zooms in minor keys.
When I heard the first sampling of this new album, I don’t think I was alone in secretly praying that the textbook Sufjan youthful exuberance was back after a brief, trippy, digital detour. The kind of exuberance that was once accompanied by lilting orchestrations that rose to climactic explosions of flute, cymbals and spiritual exclamations. Orchestrations that fit perfectly with innocent, carefree lyrics that seemed to masterfully describe this undisturbed, uncomplicated life that we all wanted to exist somewhere. Lyrics that evoked idyllic images of young unrequited love, effortless faith, and child-like hope for the future.
Put simply, Carrie & Lowell lays these notions to rest. This is Sufjan grown up and stripped bare. Those of us who were lobbying for a record full of “The Dress Looks Nice On You” sound-a-likes might be a tad disappointed to find out it’s a lot more “John Wayne Gacy” in nature.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this album is very literally just Sufjan and his banjo. It took me a few listens through to realize that there really isn’t a lick of percussion anywhere to be found. No wind instruments. No grand orchestrations. Instead, reverberated vocals, ethereal pads and spacey guitars do their best to fill the gaping sonic void.
Since Sufjan is fairly secretive about his recording process, I like to imagine that he took a Johnny Cash American Recordings approach with Carrie & Lowell. Wherein, he sat down with banjo in hand and sang and played his way through each song while Rick Rubin came along later, layering in just enough complexity behind Suf to get the song’s point across. Except maybe instead of Rick Rubin it was Sufjan’s buddies in The National doing the dirty work.
The lyrical fare hovers nearly entirely around the death of Sufjan’s mother, the eponymous Carrie, who passed away last year. The tension of their relationship (she left their family when Sufjan was very young) and the confusion he feels after her death are both themes that are layered on thick throughout the record. That dynamic, while it lends itself to some very rich songwriting, left me struggling to connect emotionally as I have yet to deal with such grief in my own life.
The honesty that flows out of each one of these new batch of songs, however, is very palatable. Probably more so than any Sufjan record yet, I’ll give it that. The subject matter obviously lends itself to this. Carrie & Lowell is a son coming to grips with the pain of a parent’s death and attempting to file away the pain that was caused by that parent’s reckless life.
After a week of regular listening, “Fourth of July” is oddly the song that has stuck with me most. I think it’s because it’s the most un-Sufjan-like song he’s released to date. Rather than layered wispy vocals declaring the coming of the Lord, it plays as an intimate conversation between he and his dying mother and culminates with his naked voice numbly deadpanning “We’re all going to die…” throughout the final few refrains. It marks the thematic climax of the record and also it’s most downward-looking point.
It’s not all death and depression, though. “Should’ve Known Better” starts slowly but ends up just about as joyous as I would suppose a grieving man could muster. This apex arrives as Sufjan encourages himself “don’t back down…nothing can be changed” and beams over his brother’s daughter and “the beauty that she brings”. A few rays of sunlight do wind up breaking through after all.
This, frankly, is not the Sufjan album that I wanted. But maybe, just maybe, it’s the one I needed. A pared back, mature record that speaks honestly and directly with little-to-no frills. I guess that’s what I should be wanting, anyways. Much like Sufjan, it’s probably time for super-fans like myself to stop pining for the past and grow up a little bit ourselves.
Let’s all just hope that it isn’t another five years until we have new Sufjan Stevens material to keep pushing us along.