What the new Sufjan album is teaching me
This was written this morning, almost as is, in a fever rush. Happy Good Friday!
Find somewhere to go and worship today, if you are able.
Sufjan Singing Our Song
I want to be one of those people who go on and on about the new Sufjan Stevens album Carrie & Lowell.
Gushing, flowing reviews, on and on.
It is Good Friday and I am standing in line at my favorite coffee place and I can barely stop myself from crying. The world is so beautiful and sad and his beautiful and sad words and melodies are flowing through my head as I look at all the people in line and serving coffee and drinking their coffee and I want the world to burst in a torrent of emotions. I want us all to know. I almost cry several times. My eyes are watery.
There is a void within Sufjan, a silence he does not know how to feel or fill. I have that void too. His void is from the absence of his mother, mine is from a present father who I hated and loathed and was never not afraid of, a monster of a man, an existential anomaly to me. As I grew into an adult, I realized the world at large is a cruel, harsh place and not just my father, and so others must have come face to face with Monster too. My father himself lived with the Monster all throughout his childhood and it damaged him irreparably.
Sufjan sings my void on every song, even though the story is his own.
This is the power of art. This is why art exists.
In line at the coffee shop is a 50-some year old man getting coffee with his octogenarian mother. They are here because the downtown museum has not opened yet. They do something every Good Friday, he says, ever since he was a little boy they have done something together. They are down from Galesburg for the day and they are killing time in the coffee shop before the museum opens. A man and his mother, enjoying the day together. It is sweet and pathetic all at once. They could have went to Grant Wood's American Gothic house in Iowa but they came to Peoria instead.
Sufjan stood at the deathbed of his mother, a woman he never knew.
As I listen to Carrie & Lowell I think of my friend who grew up adopted. I think of his story being so similar to Sufjan's. His parents, both biological and adopted, were never there for him. His youth is a story of continually feeling abandoned, continually unable to connect with the people he should love the most (I just wanted to be near you...some part of me was lost in your sleeve where you hid your cigarettes).
I want to listen to the album over and over again and think of all the people I know, all the people with their own "black shroud", all my friends who do not trust and even are afraid of their feelings. Maybe we can help each other "concentrate on seeing." Maybe Sufjan can sing all our stories.
What Sufjan Can Teach Artists
As I listen through Carrie & Lowell a number of aspects about the album are striking. I will list them point by point.
Make the old new (or it's OK to do the same things you've done before, as long as it's amazing)
There's really nothing surprising about Carrie & Lowell insofar as it's a Sufjan album. It is everything people have come to expect from him as artist, something I commented on at length in this article. That's a huge potential danger as an artist, to risk becoming derivative, a self-parody, rehashing old musical ideas. And perhaps this is what sets Sufjan apart from normal artists. His is a rare genius like that of Paul Simon's, who continually surprises. Despite being understated sonically, there are more fresh musical ideas on this one album than could be expected of most artists over the course of many albums.
So here is the key: feel free to make the same kind of art over the course of your career, but in order to stay compelling you have to dig deep to hone your craft. Oh yeah, and you should also probably be a genius.
Feel free to hold back
There are numerous songs on Carrie & Lowell where I think a younger Sufjan would have recorded a horn part or added some strings, but he just does not do it. And if he would have added extra parts to the music I am sure it would have been beautiful, but he does not give it to us. He holds back and lets the arrangements stay sparse. As the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. Sufjan has spoken plenty in his career, with this album he has chosen to be silent. There are many moments where I would expect a song to get bigger and bigger, but they refrain from doing so. As a listener I believe this has had the opposite effect on me as I expected: the lack of a big sound has caused me to feel the songs even more. My own emotions are allowed to fill in the gaps in the absences of sounds. By not cluttering his arrangements Sufjan makes room for us to enter in and make the songs our own.
Along those lines there are a number of instrumental interludes, especially at the ends of songs, that I find to be the most compelling non-vocal compositions of his career. Again, they are sparse and simple, and to me able to convey a purer emotion than all of his earlier bombastic works.
Tell your own story, use classical imagery
A lot of people have remarked about Sufjan's use of Christian imagery and themes on Carrie & Lowell and fewer have remarked on his use of Greek mythological imagery, as if this were a novel technique. By utilizing "Aaron's Beard", "Delilah", and "Poseidon", to illuminate his own story Sufjan is incorporating a classical poetic device. They are old allusions that help tell his new story, making his work seem fresh but grounded in tradition. All great art does this.
Be a genius
Good luck with that.
Carrie & Lowell is a Minor Sufjan Stevens Album (and that's a good thing)
Unanswerable Questions 3b: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell