“TO ME, IT’S like walking through a field where you used to hang out with your friends, and there’s no wind, and it’s 3pm, and there’s a horse running in the distance but you can’t hear it” was how I first described Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens seventh album, to my housemate. Stevens is a singer that prompts these kinds of responses from his audience.
The Michigan-born impresario, whose career so far has included a scrapped project to record one album for every US state and a completed project featuring 100 Christmas songs over six years, scored a slow-motion rodeo for the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year. Sufjan Steven’s America is different from the rest of us; in his America it’s always 3PM, the sun illuminating the wheat field, the ice melting off Lake Michigan on the first day of spring, the bulls run slowly across a dusty plain into the sunset. Cliché? Probably. But it’s awe-inspiring, and sad, and so the stage is set for Carrie & Lowell, an album dedicated to his late mother and stepfather.
The last we heard of Sufjan’s solo work was “Christmas Unicorn”, a 12-minute epic of a song with an interpolation of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and a first-person account from the Unicorn himself, a “mystical apostasy, a horse with a fantasy twist. Though I play all night, with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.”
Since then, a ghost has settled over his music. “Death With Dignity”, by comparison, is one of the most understated, somber, delicate opening tracks you’ll hear this year. Gone are the big-budget synths, electric guitars, any voices other than Steven’s. His voice is airy, and attached so vividly to a memory that he can’t quite find because it never existed; his mother was estranged from him due to her mental health and drug addiction, but the extremity of her addictions and the effect her estrangement had on him are never exploited.
Stevens has wrestled with loss before in his albums, “Casimir Pulaski Day” from Illinois, State Album #2, featured another slow death, but his voice and his lyrics have never felt so personal before, “What’s the point in singing songs/If they’ll never even hear you?” he croons on “Eugene”. The ukulele has never sounded sadder. Stevens’ work with ballets, rodeos, with scoring most of his debut albums himself and recording with over twenty instruments for Illinois, makes the stripped-down sound and personal nature of Carrie & Lowell that much more special. He isn’t here to make bank off his own tragedies; he uses the past ten years of songwriting – from the heavily Biblical Seven Swans to the hyper-experimental Age of Adz – to bring honesty to the music, an appreciation of beauty on one hand and observations of our mortality, masked in quiet drones and mournful piano, on the other.
Fans of Sufjan play a game with his music; “Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay, or just about God?” Crude, maybe, but it can be applied to a lot of his music, ambiguous, yearning and haunting as it always is, over the last ten years. Here, his loss is singular. His is “a heart that offends / With its lonely and greedy demands.” His is a singularly beautiful album.