College introduced me to Sufjan Stevens. Before my freshman year, I had found my favorite music strictly “on my own” (or, rather, through my favorite alternative radio station, then called 91.5 and now renamed FM 91). But then, on campus, I was surrounded by others who genuinely sought out the best music they could find. Suddenly I realized a lot of people who had great taste really liked this guy called Sufjan Stevens. I gave him a few listens out of curiosity, wanting to know what he was all about. I can’t tell you now the first song I heard by Sufjan Stevens, what musical era/state he was exploring when I gave up on him because I couldn’t get the hype. I felt as though I had done my duty as a music lover: I had listened to him, and I had tried to understand his craft. But he was to me, at face-value, weird. And I preferred my weird to be more of the Morrissey and Robert Smith variety: emotional, eighties-era, and exotically-haired.
Fast forward a few years, and Sufjan Stevens releases Carrie & Lowell on March 31, 2015. The heavens open up, and sunlight streams down upon us all. The second track on the album is entitled “Should Have Known Better.” It’s a phrase that admits regret in hindsight. It’s exactly how I feel about my previous disinterest in Sufjan Stevens and his masterpieces.
Carrie & Lowell is everything we need right now. It’s a personal album, but it’s not inaccessible to Stevens’ audience. If anything, the album’s beauty alone, expressed in Stevens’ calm voice and toned-down instruments, makes Carrie & Lowell a pleasure to listen to for even the casual fan.
But for those who have followed Sufjan Stevens over the years and watched his repertoire expand, it’s something even more. It’s a minimal sound for Stevens, one more closely aligned with his folk roots. And the complex family history surrounding Carrie & Lowell – named after Stevens’ mother and stepfather – gives the album a painful, hard-hitting authenticity. For those who have read the interview Stevens had with Pitchfork the album’s often introspective lyrics (i.e. “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you . . . / But every road leads to an end” in “Death and Dignity”) gain a new perspective. Stevens opens up on his childhood, his relationship with his mentally ill mother, and his faith in the interview.
While not every album needs a rich backstory or an explanation of the artist’s intent, Stevens’ interview adds to the already conveyed depth of Carrie & Lowell. Whether through the soul-searching verses (like “For my prayer has always been love / what did I do to deserve this?” in “Drawn to the Blood”), haunting acoustics, or ethereal backing vocals, Carrie & Lowell delivers a message of poignant sincerity. The songs act as a search for meaning; Stevens documents this struggle without apology. The result is what may very well be the best of Sufjan Stevens yet.
As for me, I can admit when I’m wrong. I’m revisiting his previous albums with an enthusiasm I somehow never had before. I should have known better: Sufjan Stevens commands a quite particular presence in the indie community. And it’s a well-deserved one.
Standout lyric: “Should I tear my heart out now? / Everything I feel returns to you somehow.” – “The Only Thing”
Listen to “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” on Vimeo:
Carrie & Lowell can be purchased through Asthmatic Kitty Records: