Carrie & Lowell is a Minor Sufjan Stevens Album (and that's a good thing)

Sufjan Steven's new album Carrie & Lowell (out 31 March, 2015) is probably the strangest album he has ever released. What makes the album so strange is that it is really not all that strange, which makes it pretty odd by Sufjan standards.

Sure, the trademark Sufjan sound is fully intact (quiet, breathy vocals, acoustic guitars and banjos, background electronic noodling, and transcendent melodies) and sure it is another concept album (Can you remember the last time Sufjan did not release a concept album? The All Delighted People EP does not count, and I think you could probably consider Seven Swans a loose concept record, so we are probably talking A Sun Came—his first—as his only non-concept album) but it is certainly his quietest, most understated, most personal, and (this is more significant than you might realize) his shortest album. Gone are the weird time signatures and, for the most part, the long song titles. I mean really, if there is not a song in 5/4 time somewhere on the album, it cannot really be a Sufjan Stevens album, can it?

The album's obvious cousins are Seven Swans and All Delighted People, which more often than not find Sufjan at his quietest and most intimate, but even those works often ventured into the epic ("Seven Swans" and "Djohariah" to take only two examples) and their subjects bordered on the strange and bizarre and macabre and apocalyptic. And for sure, the lyrics on Carrie & Lowell are all those things, but they lack one key element: an outside device or artifice from which to view or read Sufjan. Before, Sufjan has used The Bible, Flannery O'Connor, Christmas, the states of Michigan and Illinois, an expressway, various birds, a reclusive artist, and even the Chinese zodiac to tell us about or express himself. He has psychoanalyzed and exorcised himself by way of gigantic culturally consuming ideas, but on Carrie & Lowell he has stripped away any artifice he might cling to or fall back on for security, giving us only himself and the sad story of his childhood. There is nothing for him to hide behind anymore. He has laid himself bare and it is often hard to listen too. As he said in a recent Pitchfork interview: "This is not my art project. This is my life."

In reflecting on knowing his mother as a young child, Sufjan sings in one of many devastating lines:
Lemon youghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt
I dropped the ashtray on the floor
I just wanted to be near you

Before, Sufjan made it seem like something else was at the center of his albums (Illinois! Royal Roberts!) when really, all along, the albums were all about him. This is something he has admitted to in numerous interviews over the years. But now, for the first time, he is making it clear from the start this album is about him and his story. And maybe this is a good thing. Maybe for the first time, instead of distracting us with grand civic and religious narratives and imagery, we can instead focus on the microcosm of Sufjan, and so doing, really find ourselves in his work. Through his uncomfortably personal revelations we can see our own stories at play. Up till now Sufjan has taken the universal and made it personal, but in Carrie & Lowell he has made the personal universal to us all. I find that incredibly refreshing.

But throughout the album it is clear he has resisted his epic tendencies, both in sound dynamics and song length (its longest songs are just over 5 minutes). Imagine the self-control it must have taken for him to do this! This is the guy, after all, who has given us "Come on and Feel the Illinoise!", "Impossible Soul", "Christmas Unicorn", and an entire piece dedicated to an expressway. In the years leading up to the Age of Adz being released I remember Sufjan saying he had gotten sick of his twee folksy sound. He had gotten sick of sounding like himself. Out of that came the relentless electronic tinkering of Adz and Silver & Gold (his second collection of Christmas songs), a number of more "ugly" and dissonant and brash songs, and a consistent release of "classical" instrumental works. But all these works—notwithstanding his most recent instrumental compositions which I have not heard—were still the same over-the-top epic Sufjan, the themes larger than life, the sounds bold and declarative, even in their ironic evasiveness.

Please do not misunderstand: These aspects of his art are what make Sufjan great and what have caused him to be the most loved and dynamic artist in my own life for the past ten years. Even so, I find the counterintuitive move of Carrie & Lowell to be thrilling and fascinating, as thrilling as it would be if Quentin Tarantino would cut all the revenge schtick but still take all his cinematic and narrative idiosyncrasies and make a straight up romantic comedy.

On Carrie & Lowell though Sufjan seems to simultaneously have given up his pretensions for creating something BIG while also settling into who he is as a songwriter. This entire album consists of nothing but the very Sufjany sounding songs that nauseated him a few years ago. Sufjan seems to be more OK than ever with being Sufjan—at least Sufjan the musician is, the okay-ness of Sufjan the man appears to be another story altogether according to the album's narratives. And (for the moment at least) he does not feel like he needs to overdub 47 parts on top of the melody or extend a song out to ten minutes to get his points across. Again, this is refreshing, that an artist with nearly all his albums having to be released as double LP's due to length (even his supposed "EP" All Delighted People), is at peace with releasing a set of songs so seemingly small and quaint. By all appearances this is minor Sufjan Stevens album.

And that perhaps is Sufjan's greatest trick of all, for the same themes that have pervaded his entire oeuvre are present here as well: faith, love, death, pain, instability, temporality, transcendence. The only difference is these themes are laid more bare than ever before, which makes this "small" album all the more impacting.

There is one more reason why this "minor" Sufjan album is a good thing: who knows what all music he will be releasing in the future, but the guy has a number of known works just sitting around waiting (I assume) to be let out into the world. From ballet scores, to documentary soundtracks, to song cycles based on the planets, to beautiful songs about birds, Sufjan has a wealth of material that could eventually see the light of day. And thus the release of Carrie & Lowell makes me hopeful that there is much more to come.

For now though I am going to put on my new Carrie & Lowell LP (as soon as it comes in the mail of course!) and just dwell in the sadness with Sufjan. And like Sufjan, I might even be drawn to cry out in prayer, as I compare his life to my own, and I see how frail and damaged I am, how in need of God I will always be:

Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me
From fossils that fall on my head
There's only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I'm dead

Related article:
An Amazing List of Unreleased Sufjan Stevens Songs
Reminder: I Still Hate Sufjan Stevens
Wake Up!—Uncovering Arcade Fire's Grand Narrative

No comments: