Sufjan Stevens :: Us and those we lose


By Tim Richardson

Sufjan Stevens is known for high-concept projects. He’s crafted musical anthologies of Illinois and Michigan, made a song for each of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and churned out seemingly endless volumes of Christmas music. With his newest album, Carrie & Lowell, we find him at his least thematically ambitious and most biographically and emotionally exposed. As has been extensively publicized and discussed, Carrie & Lowell is very explicitly about one thing: Sufjan’s response to the 2012 death of his mother Carrie to stomach cancer. Each song copes with the reverberations of this event: witnessing it, burying it, or accepting it, sometimes all at the same time.

Leading up to the record’s release, there was much talk of Carrie & Lowell as Sufjan going “back to basics”. Sufjan may have gone a little more basic than anyone was expecting. For an artist that seems to have the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra on stand-by, the production values here are remarkably low. A number of the songs were recorded in a hotel room using an iPhone microphone, an audible air conditioner even prominently featuring in one track. Yet while this album is certainly stripped down, there is nothing musically basic here. Rather, this is Sufjan deprived of all his superpowers. Gone is the bubbling exuberance of Illinois and Michigan, the religious salvation of Seven Swans, and the auto-tuned electro-freakout of Age of Adz. Gone are the 25-word long track names and 25-minute long tracks. This is Sufjan Stevens naked and alone in a room, contemplating death, separation, neglect, and suicide. There is something unnerving about the loss of exuberance that was once emblematic of his sound. Maybe death changed him. Maybe he got old.

Moments of catharsis are here prone to be dispelled and undone. Take “Should Have Known Better,” wherein Sufjan struggles with the emotional inertia that prevented him from reaching out to his mother before her death. Halfway into the song, the tone takes an unexpected shift toward the optimistic that would be jarring in almost any other musician’s hands. “Nothing can be changed” he sings, this time as self-reassurance, and, “My brother had a daughter; the beauty that she brings, Illumination.” But as the track ends the music drifts away and the vision slowly dissolves before him. Even the illumination of a newborn niece serves as a reminder that his mother will never get the chance to share in the light. Even moments of respite can be repurposed towards grief’s ends.

Sufjan has referred to Carrie & Lowell as “raw” and “artless.”  There are times when Sufjan is so raw it almost feels awkward and even lurid to listen in. This effect was only amplified in his live show when I saw him at Massey Hall. As if self-conscious, Sufjan powered through almost the entire new album start to finish before so much as addressing the audience, then dipping into his back-catalogue at a much easier pace. In an interview with The J Files Sufjan admitted to crying openly during some of his recent shows. As an audience, we are, after all, listening to a man asking his mother why she didn’t love him. As powerful as the show was, this is not an album that was designed with touring in mind.

All this melancholy may sound indulgent, but Sufjan brings an incredible lightness to this record. Take “The Only Thing,” a song in which Sufjan playfully contemplates suicide first by driving his car into a canyon then by slitting his wrists in a motel bathroom. Here, suicidal ideation becomes merely the backdrop for a statement of faith and hope. The ‘only’ thing stopping Sufjan from ending his life is the “signs and wonders: sea lion caves in the dark” – the natural beauty of the world. In “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” we find Sufjan in a moment of self-reflection after a grief-fuelled stint of substance abuse or “chasing the dragon too far”. For a song including the line ”Fuck me I’m falling apart” the sound is restorative, like being moved downriver by a gentle current. For Sufjan, there is no time so dark that it cannot be salvaged by a moment of transcendent self-forgiveness and the possibility of renewal.

The title track is the album’s one moment of unrestrained uplift. Sufjan finds a sanctuary in a collage of lyrical images, snippets of childhood summers spent with Carrie in Oregon. The banjo kicks in at the midway point, its first appearance in the album from a man who was once known for its sound. The moment works because it takes us back to the roots of our relationship with Sufjan, just as he is returning to the roots of his relationship with his mother.

The album’s sparse final track “Blue Bucket of Gold” seems to call into question the entire album that comes before it, and perhaps even his entire canon to this point. He sings “Once the myth has been told the lens deforms it as lightning.” Sufjan has made a career of mythologizing – he made a full-length soundtrack for an expressway, made us empathize for a serial killer, and turned a road trip to Chicago into an anthem of freedom and renewal for all of America. But here, his powers don’t work: Sufjan can extol, forgive and tell all the stories he wants, but there is fundamentally no one there to hold him and tell him they love him back. More than that, this line foresees that the endless retelling of his story – in interviews, live shows, articles like these – ”deforms” the original meaning, and risks serving only to further distance him from the person that was its source.

In several instances throughout this record Sufjan ends a song by relinquishing his voice, guitar, and piano, and letting the song’s ambience engulf him, as if being overpowered by the mood he just conjured up. “Blue Bucket of Gold” ends with such an expression, this time as he surrenders his mother to the beyond. In an album that is overpoweringly honest, beautiful, and devastating, this section is the purest expression of grief in the entire record. It is a final release of sadness and rumination, and an acceptance of the futility of the attempt to reach out. In the end, there is nothing that can bridge the gap between us and those we lose.