Carrie & Lowell

Band: Sufjan Stevens
Album: Carrie & Lowell
Best song: “Fourth of July”
Worst song: “Drawn to the Blood” is not as strong as the rest of the record.

There’s a conversation to be had about Sufjan Stevens, his religiosity, his skillset, his campiness and his general whiteness (I believe Pitchfork touched on the whiteness of the indie scene here). There are connections there, most certainly, but I can’t put them together right now. To use an overly obnoxious cliche: What do we talk about when we talk about Stevens? Is it one of those things above? Is it his popularity that seemingly came out of nowhere, only to be somewhat wasted on Christmas songs? 

I have not considered myself a particular fan of Stevens in a long time; when a friend asked me to accompany him to a Stevens show next month, I declined because my thoughts about the Michigander are colored above (too many Christmas songs, too over-the-top campy, etc.). The BQE album was a nice idea poorly executed and, man, those Christmas boxed sets/songs/whatever are the kind of thing that will make me run to the exists. They’re so inhuman, so sincerely optimistic and positive… In my gen-x-by-way-of-too-old-millennial tempered search for authenticity, Stevens’ campiest work seems antithetical to that.

And yet… Stevens is the sixth-most played artist on my profile. Those numbers matter, because they have measured — I’ve venture — 80ish% of the songs I’ve listened to since I got an iPod in 2003. That’s all my post-college life. While that certainly

So, what gives? I hate Stevens’ most notable aspects — those ridiculous arrangements, his religiosity, etc. — yet I’ve listened to more Stevens songs than Iron & Wine songs or Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan songs or Bedhead or Taylor Swift. Artists and bands I’ve discovered post-college and adore.

The answer is somewhat explained by Carrie & Lowell and it’s pretty simple: When Stevens strips the arrangements and the Christ-y stuff (or at least codes and hides it, as Sunny Day Real Estate did), he’s a terrific melancholy songwriter. Stevens is best in minor keys and loss.

Carrie & Lowell is an exploration of those things. The backstory of the album is best-explained by The Atlantic and Pitchfork here, but the gist is that Stevens’ estranged mother passed away recently and he spent a lot of time dealing with it. Via Pitchfork:

I felt a desire to be with her, so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and fucking around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her.

Before this record, his best two songs were the soft ones on Michigan and Illinois: “Romulus” and “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Both are easy, small songs about loss and bits of his life. Each is melancholy without the morbidity necessary for “Carrie & Lowell.” Stevens is best in these spaces.

The record is touched by a soft sadness felt by someone wanting to help a drug addict (The title track recounts thorazine and other means of coping by Sufjan and his mother), someone who feels tremendous loss and someone who doesn’t know how to process it all (“I don’t know where to begin” is the universal mourning line in the album’s opening track). It’s the kind of record that makes you cry and you’re not totally sure why; I found myself fighting back tears while listening to album standout “Fourth of July.”

Indeed, that track is the slice-of-life standout on the album. Full of remembered moments and small odes to the past, Stevens paints a vivid set of images only rivaled by his best work on Michigan‘s and Illinois‘ best tracks. He uses flying imagery to describe his mother, a common — but not overused — metaphor for addicts and loved ones. The arpeggiated guitar and easy vocals only emphasize the wondrous use of language Stevens employs.

The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light

It’s worth noting that the only thing close to a refrain on “Fourth of July” is “We’re all gonna die,” giving the song an otherworldly quality. It’s in this existentialism that the song is best used. Rumination, I guess.

It fits that Carrie & Lowell is such a strong record, in that it works to his skill set so well. Not his sincerity; there is a lot of terrible work dedicated to loved ones and built out of grief or true emotion. Rather, Stevens-as-understated Midwesterner is his best avenue and Carrie & Lowell shows this.

“Death with Dignity” tries to unpack Stevens’ need to be close to his mother, as he simply says “I don’t know where to begin” as the unifying theme of the song. Playing in a high register on his acoustic guitar, he works through various imagery of the freedom (horses, forests, lights, etc.) his mother sought by abandoning her family. Stevens himself saw it as a net good. Again, via Pitchfork:

It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.

The record is a beautiful exploration of these issues. The title track emphasizes the relationship between the titular couple over a faster guitar bit, overlaid with harmonies. Stevens continues his metaphors and nicknames of his mother (his mother is a “mayfly” on this one) over doubled vocals that sound oalmost church-like.

As it is, Stevens looks toward his well-publicized faith later on “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” using biblical imagery and morbidity to examine his own life. He talks of finding solace in “capsules” and “chasing the
dragon,” eventually settling on “Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” It’s the work of a master songwriter’s escalation and resolution.

I shouldn’t say that Stevens’ only good work is acoustic stuff; The Age of Adz is similarly wonderful. But, the key is that my love for Stevens is not in his ability to use a glockenspiel to sing a song about Superman or record hundreds of songs about Christmas. Rather, he can — as the best artists can — dig deep into the sadness that is the human condition. It’s a struggle, man. And Stevens can articulate that as well as anyone on “Carrie & Lowell.”

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