Listen UP: Sufjan Steven’s new album will probably make you ugly cry

I’ve been a long-time fan of Sufjan Stevens. The guy could teach a master class in Americana, expertly weaving universal symbols and emotions into particular national mythology. Take, for example, his album Come on Feel the Illinoise! which carefully curates images and stories unique to Illinois into cohesive, accessible music. Stevens can go from tender (see: almost all of Seven Swans and “Casimir Pulaski Day” off of Illinoise) to experimental (Age of Adz and his cover of “A Little Lost”) to both. Where Stevens has always been a true musician, it with his most recent album, Carrie and Lowell, that he becomes a poet.

image via music.sufjan.com
image via music.sufjan.com

This is by far Stevens’s most autobiographical work. Deeply personal without becoming self-indulgent, Carrie and Lowell provides an intimate portrait of loss. Stevens mourns the death of his mother – the titular Carrie – who had been troubled by alcoholism, schizophrenia, and depression all of her life. She left Stevens at a young age and the album becomes riddled with images of Stevens’s early childhood with Carrie in Eugene, Oregon and his own mythology of her. You get a sense through Carrie and Lowell that Stevens is grieving himself, too. The album is anchored by repeating images and themes, creating a trusting dialogue with the listener. It is these specific memories that make the loss in Carrie and Lowell palpable.

I urge you to read Sufjan Stevens’s excellent interview with Pitchfork, “True Myth: A Conversation with Sufjan Stevens,” before delving into the CD. It provides necessary context and deepens the listening experience. The interview can be found here: http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/9595-true-myth-a-conversation-with-sufjan-stevens/

Image via pitchfork.com
Image via pitchfork.com

The album’s first track, “Death with Dignity,” immediately sets a melancholic tone and outlines which images will be threaded throughout. Stevens is more stream-of-conscious than he’s ever been, again lending to the personal nature of the CD. He immediately addresses the listener at points, engaging us to work through his grief with him. Most impressively, Stevens expertly combines his personal mythology (Eugene, Carrie, sea lions, etc.) with our cultural vocabulary, providing endless shout-outs to Greek, biblical, and American stories. He uses his own private signs and our common language to create art that is both intimate and universal. He connects his most painful memories with a sort of mythical Neverland, landmarked by particular images and senses. Which is how we transfer our most striking memories, anyway – with certain smells, tastes, and sights.

The album is an exercise in working through his own trauma with us, even clueing us in by utilizing ambient fade outs at the end of most songs. He is giving himself (and us) time to grieve and reflect. In this sense, the album is an interesting study in memory; in grasping for a subject that is very immediate and tangible, but also with a sense of distance. And isn’t that how we all feel when we’ve lost something?

Carrie and Lowell is strong throughout – there isn’t a weak link – but it reaches an emotional high note on “Fourth of July” where Stevens seems to speak for Carrie, almost through her ghost. Other great tracks include “The Only Thing,” “Eugene,” “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” and “John My Beloved,” though I really recommend you listen to the whole album all the way through, and you know, make sure you have something light and funny like The Mindy Project to get you out of the inevitable depression this album will put you in.

Carrie and Lowell is available for listen on NPR’S First Listen and for order on Steven’s website.

– Jenny Henderson

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