Sufjan Stevens embraces imperfection to paint moving family portrait

Sufjan Stevens returns to sparse folk instrumentation and haunting vocals on his honest and unflinching lyrical masterpiece "Carrie & Lowell." Garrison Reid via Flickr Creative Commons

With an intimacy that is at times both jarring and comforting, Sufjan Stevens once again lets listeners into his private, imperfect world, allowing flaws to shine through to create an album with dimension and honesty. On his seventh studio album, “Carrie & Lowell,” released March 27, Stevens spends 43 minutes addressing themes of his youth and dissecting family relationships with a calculated hand that is often unforgiving in the portraits it paints. The album cover itself features a photo of Stevens’ mother and stepfather, and he spends the majority, if not the entirety, of the album delving into the relationships he had with both. Most specifically, the album addresses Stevens’ complex relationship with his mother, who died of stomach cancer in 2012.

There is no electronica here, and listeners tired and frustrated after Stevens’ sixth studio album “The Age of Adz” (2010) will enjoy a return to hushed depth from Stevens. Yet the journey through the album is not an easy one. At times the album feels like a recorded version of Stevens in therapy as he seethes out lyrics like, “Beloved my John, so I’ll carry on / Counting my cards down to one / And when I am dead, come visit my bed / My fossil is bright in the sun,” while soft guitar plays in the background. The tracks weave tales that read like recycled fairytales: elements of magic repackaged for suburban America. The delivery itself comes with a sadness, a sense of polite graciousness at the hand-me-down content of the songs, while including a whimsical acoustic guitar. The juxtaposition between pain and pleasantry would be funny if it wasn’t so honest and uncompromising. The entire album reads like an episode of “The Wonder Years” (1988-1993) gone awry, one in which Norma Arnold leaves her family and young Kevin is left wandering around suburbia by himself, held together with too much angst and without an outlet for the profound sense of abandonment that runs through the core of “Carrie & Lowell.”

The album has an avoirdupois that would be suffocating if it was not so subtle. The whisper melodies and acoustic guitar create a beautiful sound on “Carrie & Lowell” — a sound that only barely masks the pain evident in the lyrics. Take a step closer, though, and the bruised flesh of the album is visible behind the thin veneer of instrumentation.

The album begins with “Death with Dignity.” A soft guitar plucking out swift runs as Stevens’ voice hits falsetto with an angelic grace. While lyrics play up that balance between fairytale and documentary in Stevens’ storytelling, it is the blunt force of lyrics like “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end” that really drive the song.

“Should Have Known Better” digs in deeper as it discusses Stevens’ mother; Stevens sings, “When I was three, three maybe four / she left us at that video store.” On the track, Stevens’ voice seems to trip over lyrics at the ends of lines, as though in a rush to get out the emotion that is laden in them. There is a consciousness here, as Stevens acknowledges exactly how uncompromisingly he is telling his story, but with his refusal to tell anything but the truth comes a greater success for the album musically.

“Drawn to the Blood” highlights the hymnal and delicate voice of Stevens. There are clear parallels to the acoustic melancholia of Elliot Smith and the lyrical complexity of Nick Drake. The album evokes the one-two punch of raw-nerved lyrics with melodic, acoustic accompaniment a la Fleet Foxes on their self-titled “Fleet Foxes” (2008), where songs like “White Winter Hymnal” paired lyrics like, “And Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime,” with a soft choral back-up section and an acoustic guitar accompaniment.

“Eugene” brings in more personal details that flesh out the story of Stevens’ youth and pull listeners in to his life. At times, the track, and the album, has a childlike sense of wonder, a delicate touch that exists in the soft playing of chords. At other moments, the specificity of details cuts deep, and the listener needs to come up for air to recover from their intensity. Lyrics like, “Some part of me was lost in your sleeve / Where you hid your cigarettes / No I’ll never forget / I just want to be near you,” often necessitate pausing the track to digest everything Stevens is throwing at his audience.

At times, the album seems to hit one note and stay there. Its themes can feel self-serving and haunting, as though Stevens is circling back to the same ghosts over and over, unable to move on. But for listeners, the journey is one of tremendous substance. Stevens is not distracted by experimentation or by the temptation to compromise lyrical quality for complex melodies. The center of the album is the poetic exploration of death and grieving. It is a relatable journey, and one in which Stevens offers an outstretched hand searching for love, imploring listeners to feel as raw and free as he does.


Summary

Stevens is not distracted by experimentation or by compromising lyrical quality for complex melodies. The center of the album is the poetic exploration of death and grieving, it is a relatable journey and one in which Sufjan offers an outstretched hand, searching for love, imploring listeners to feel as raw and free as he does.

4.5 stars
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