In Sufjan Stevens’ seventh solo studio album to date, he takes a somewhat darker route, highlighting the themes of sorrow and despair as well as the tumultuous relationship with his now late mother. Now, to be completely honest with you all (and I feel like I must at this point), I do not have much experience with Sufjan Stevens’ music, but with the upcoming release of Carrie & Lowell, I feel like I have to start from somewhere. Over the past few weeks the banjo/guitar carrying singer songwriter has captured my heart and learning about what makes him and his music tick was really fascinating. So, even though I might not have the discography memorized, I feel like I can still do a review of this highly evocative album.
We all wear our sorrows differently, and have different ways of showing it. Some suppress, some conceal, and some wear it on their sleeve. With respect to Stevens, wearing it on your sleeve is sometimes highly encouraged, and even appreciated. It’s already known that he’s an incredibly talented writer, and the way it’s arranged on this upcoming album with the music is breathtakingly beautiful, despite the fact that it comes face to face with the reality of loss. The majority of the album is about Stevens’ mother, who passed away in 2012, and the problems he faced as a result of her abandoning her family and only rarely showing up in their lives riddled with traces of abuse. As a result, the songs are done in a similar way – they’re extremely personal and painfully heart-wrenching, with most of the emphasis placed on soft, delicate piano and muted guitar. “Fourth of July” is perhaps the best example of this new aesthetic, where Stevens’ has a heartfelt discussion with his mother supposedly on her deathbed, where he calls her his “firefly” and repeats incredibly profound things that one doesn’t think about or even want to think about, namely, the subject of death. Despite the feeling of sadness it brings, he follows it up with “The Only Thing,” where he lists his reason for wanting to stay in this beautiful world: nature. Moreover, it’s the overall feeling of melancholia which almost gives an image of hope in tracks like “Death With Dignity” and “Should Have Known Better” that I enjoy the most, because here, Stevens’ voice is in this hushed tone and an even more gentle falsetto that conveys emotion so perfectly. There are times where the music and style it’s played in repeats itself in the second half, but overall, the message the album as a whole conveys is absolutely beautiful.
References to his mother’s abandonment in a video store when he was a toddler and more recent events in Stevens’ life this show up explicitly in the absolutely gorgeous song “Should Have Known Better,” where the guitar and vocals are perhaps the most challenging to convey in the way he desires, but is done flawlessly. I enjoyed it the most because unlike the other tracks on the album, this one doesn’t have a set emotion from beginning to end. It starts out in a muted haze of meticulous guitar plucking that’s both regretful and dismal, with references to a “black shroud” – most likely a metaphor for his own depression – and the fact that he is a constant hostage to his never ending feelings. Then, around the half-way point, the mood changes considerably with the introduction of a playful electric keyboard melody, and his tone grows hopeful, singing “the past is still the past” and he wants to move on. He sings about his niece and how he sees his mother’s face in her, and says that it’s simple things like this that place beauty in the world and make it easier to face your inevitable sorrows and fears. Carrie & Lowell could be represented with this song, I feel, because it addresses all the themes Stevens’ intended – the most evocative being the feeling of utter loss and both the beauty and ugliness of love. Sufjan Stevens has gained a new fan in me, and after listening to this album, it’s clear what Stevens’ wants us to know. Love is really all you need.
Carrie & Lowell will be released on March 30th.
More music videos will be posted here when they are released.
photo by Emmanuel Afolabi