I never really got into Sufjan Stevens. That is until now. I was aware of his albums Michigan and Illinois and was intrigued by his off-hand comment of a plan to make an album for all 50 states… which he obviously never got around to doing. The last time we heard from solo Stevens was 2010’s experimental Age of Adz which definitely wasn’t quite my tempo, so to speak.
After a lengthy absence from solo studio work, which included the death of his estranged mother as described in a Pitchfork interview, Sufjan Stevens has returned with Carrie & Lowell; a wonderfully somber album of deeply effective songs by an older, clearly changed man. Coincidentally, Death Cab for Cutie dropped the not bad Kintsugi this week, and Carrie & Lowell feels like a modern reincarnation of the empty, too late, sorrowfully honest magic that made Transatlantiscism and Plans so good — in Stevens’ own quirky way.
Favorite songs for me on Carrie & Lowell come on the first half.
“Should Have Known Better” builds steadily and ends with a synth-popish finish. “All of Me Wants All of You” is fully of heavy, lonely guitar before being joined by some more ambient spacey sounds. In fact, a number of songs, great though the lyrics are, sort of drift off into emptiness from an already sparse start. Parts of the album sound like they could have been produced by a depressed Jamie xx, but maybe I say that because we’ve heard lots of new music from him lately too.
Even the most somber song (in my opinion, given the title and how many fond memories I personally have for the the day) “Fourth of July” is light and sort of adrift in space a la a The xx at their slowest. I think the song hits home for me personally because we used to throw these big family reunions in the country on the Fourth of July. It’s one of those things that fell apart as the people it mattered most to have died (which is true of all things I guess). I look up now and see fewer and fewer carrying on old traditions and I’m reminded, like firework lights in the sky, “we’re all gonna die”.
That’s no shade to the second half of the album, either. “The Only Thing” and the title track follow “Forth of July” and are both as good. Given the subject matter I’m sure you’ll find something, somewhere on the album to relate to if you give it at least one full spin. Carrie & Lowell has a way of conjuring up memories within the listener as Stevens reflects on his own life and relationships gone by. It’s grounded and sincere and unafraid, and if Stevens didn’t say a word, the guitar and piano play would speak loud and clear enough on their own.