Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell

Scott Wallace
27th Mar 2015

Asthmatic Kitty, 2015

Since 2010, it's been hard to know where Sufjan Stevens was headed next. When The Age of Adz dropped that year, it featured Stevens' soft choirboy vocals atop electronics that were often harsh and grating, full of whirring synthesizers and sputtering beats. It was a huge contrast to the whimsical folk pop of his earlier work. Now, those who have now been waiting ten years for a "proper" follow up to the massively acclaimed and still brilliant Illinois finally have it.

But this new record, Carrie & Lowell is still another beast. On Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) and Illinois, Stevens used the past, present and future of entire American states as a jumping off point to explore himself, his faith and his place in the world, using dramatic and flamboyant arrangements layered with horns, strings, woodwinds and choirs. His latest record, however, is named for his mother and stepfather, who are pictured on the record cover. Carrie died in 2012, and her ghost haunts this simple and direct record, which largely consists of little more than Stevens' voice and some gentle guitar or keyboards.

This pared-down approach serves to throw both Stevens' lyrics - which are more direct and personal than ever, including lines like "You checked your texts while I masturbated" on "All of Me Wants All of You" - and the embellishments that he does allow into the arrangements to shine. Tracks will often build from simple beginnings. A heavenly choir graces the climax of album opener "Death with Dignity," but the best example is early highlight "Should Have Known Better," which builds up like one of Stevens' famous epics built in miniature. It is hushed and gentle, perhaps a little blurry, surrounded by a corona of its own light.

Previously, Stevens has told stories of death and loss, but they still felt very much like stories, told with a certain detached air. Now, the songs are so intimate that on one ("No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross") you can hear the hum of Stevens' air conditioner in the background. That song, incidentally was the album's first single, and a perfect example of its themes. Stevens' Christian faith hangs heavily over the song, which is clearly indebted to the influence of his mother, containing references to abuse of prescription drugs, and the Oregon home where Stevens spent time with his mother and stepfather as a child.

"We're all gonna die," Stevens sings on "Fourth of July," a song permeated with a sad sweetness as Stevens repeatedly refers to its subject with pet names like "my little hawk" and "my dragonfly." Death and hurt haunt even "John My Beloved," on the surface a story of a doomed relationship, but complicated with biblical and mythical allusions - Stevens may be singing from the point-of-view of Christ himself - and a chorus that states "There's only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking, I'm dead."

There are still hints of the wide-eyed positivity that define Stevens' work, though. The morose "The Only Thing" is followed by the sprightly title track, which features steadily circling guitar arpeggios, pitter-patter percussion not unlike Buddy Holly's immortal "Everyday" and an almost unbearably lush vocal arrangement. Peppered with moments of darkness, but suffused with the glow of a certain fond nostalgia, "Carrie & Lowell" is as complex and intensely beautiful as Stevens' music gets.

The highs are that high, and the lows are merely unmemorable. Certain tracks are overly long and break up the flow of the record. This is most notably of "The Only Thing," particularly given that it is sandwiched between the bittersweet "Fourth of July" and the title track. On the same note, when songs suddenly disappear into miasma of slow and deliberate synthesizer chords, as happens a few times on the record, the effect frustratingly breaks up the momentum. Because of the very limited sonic palette used here, the whole thing has a tendency to blur together, making individual songs difficult to pick out. A low-key record like this takes patience, and is not going to reveal itself entirely upon first listen.

Carrie & Lowell lacks the sing-a-long climaxes that made Sufjan Stevens an indie favourite, so to some it will register as a disappointment. It feels as if in the past he had the tendency to hide behind bold sounds and suite-like arrangements, but here he has nowhere to hide. He is bearing everything for this record, and that should be commended even if this hushed acoustic balladry is not your cup of tea. The drama is not there in the arrangements, as beautiful as they are, but give this record time and you will find all the brutal, bleeding, heart-wrenching drama lurking within its heady and poetic lyrics, waiting to be explored.

Carrie & Lowell is out on CD, vinyl and digitally on Friday April 3, and you can see Sufjan Stevens live over four nights at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid LIVE 2015. Tickets are on sale now.