Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens
“Don’t listen to this record if you can’t digest the reality of it,” warned Sufjan Stevens about his upcoming album, Carrie & Lowell, in his landmark interview with Pitchfork last month. It’s the sort of command that, by any other songwriter, would sound laughably pretentious and melodramatic. Yet for those passionate about his music, Stevens’ words (and the interview as a whole) were profoundly exciting; the artist is notoriously reticent with fans and the press about his emotional and private life. The personal evolution from the poppy, character-driven Illinois (2005) to the more elusive and baroque Age of Adz (2010) further stoked the flames for fans wondering what thematic changes could be expected from his first full release in nearly five years.
In many ways, it seems fitting that Carrie & Lowell follows Age of Adz; the glimmers of autobiography in the latter are on full display in the newer release, resulting in a sparser, more consistent sound. The manic-depressive electronic noise of Adz has given way to an ambient, melancholic aesthetic; musically, Carrie & Lowell is a far simpler affair, rarely with more than a guitar accompanying the vocals. We occasionally hear signs of his evolutionary journey as a songwriter: subtle banjo that calls to mind his work on Seven Swans (2004) in “Should Have Known Better,” synthetic swells in “Fourth of July” that point back to Adz. With repeated lines such as “We’re all gonna die” (“Fourth of July”) and “In no matter of speaking [sic], I’m dead” (“John My Beloved”), a sense of personal apocalypse looms over the record, yet one never gets the sense that it represents a cry for help. Instead, it seems as if writing the album was an arduous but necessary exercise for Stevens, who has addressed many of its songs to those now absent from his life.
Abandonment and a fixation with death in the album join other themes more familiar to fans, such as love (and the clever, deliberate ambiguity about its nature, be it romantic, familial or divine), naturalistic imagery and heavy use of symbols. Stevens’ vocal style has not changed significantly. Like most of his previous, slower material, he relies on high, breathy lilts and near-whispers to lend more to the lyrics’ emotional gravitas. Newer elements are the raw-sounding count-offs on “Carrie & Lowell” and “Blue Bucket of Gold” and the “oohs” and “ahs” layered beneath the solo in “John My Beloved.” The album is pretty uniformly low-energy but reaches its most upbeat zenith in its lyrically inscrutable eponymous track. For those uninterested in its emotional content, Carrie & Lowell will be a long haul. It can be repetitive – too consistently paced and, in the wrong listening context, possibly boring. Even for the die-hards out there, trying to decipher each line can be exhausting in itself and may detract from the overall experience.
To be sure, Stevens is honest in his suggestions to listeners on how best to prepare ourselves: Carrie & Lowell is a deeply intimate record, far more lyrical than catchy and more introspective than musically dynamic. Unlike Illinois and even Age of Adz, this is not the album to play while driving or cleaning one’s dorm; those who will enjoy it most are dedicated fans, those willing to put aside time to focus all their energy on combining various lines to assemble a more complete image of the artist’s life. Listeners who for whatever reason connect with the sense of tragedy about the album will find the experience that much more emotional. But the most striking element about Carrie & Lowell is that, in its composition, Stevens doesn’t seem to be writing for anyone but himself. Even though past albums have certainly related private anecdotes, his songwriting has always been, as a friend put it to me, externally oriented. He has written to share stories, about friends or places or journeys. Carrie & Lowell, by contrast, looks inward: It is personal catharsis – a musical confrontation with and about loved ones long deferred in his discography. It’s not for everyone, but, for those patient or passionate enough to give it a concentrated listen-through, they will find Stevens’ most beautiful, important release yet.