Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens is one of those artists who does not have fair-weather fans. You either love him or hate him. I definitely love him. Same time, I totally get why many people fall into the latter category. His lyrics can be incredibly overwrought. Though likely unintentional, he basically invented the indie-pop “preciousness” that would inspire some truly horrible music. His often necessary (and at one time uncommon) use of the banjo turned it into an instrument used by many indie performers after him in thoroughly unnecessary ways. Worst of all, his ridiculously devoted fanbase is also ridiculously annoying. I know this because I am a member of it.
So, yeah, it makes total sense why some people just can’t take Suf. What I’m less sympathetic to is when people dismiss him so quickly. All personal preferences aside, he is a truly talented and even groundbreaking individual. If there is ever an Indie Rock Hall of Fame then he will be one of the first inductees. And of his twelve albums, Carrie & Lowell is arguably his best one to date.
Following the mixed reviews of his brilliant though at times completely unlistenable electro avant-pop release The Age of Adz, the more sparse, folksy Carrie & Lowell was a bit of a pallet cleanser for those disappointed by its predecessor.
I’m definitely one of those super annoying fans who writes off any supposed Sufjan fan who adamantly dislikes Adz. Still, it was refreshing to hear him take a break from experimentation and just focus on writing great songs. The result is truly hypnotizing
On Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan deals with the recent loss of his mother. At this point, the mythos behind his mom is well-known. She (Carrie) raised him and his siblings for a short time whilst married to step-dad (Lowell) but due to her severe mental illness left the family. This illness, paired with drug and alcohol addiction, separated Carrie from her family up until her death a couple years ago. While Carrie was absent and the kids returned to their biological dad, Lowell did his best to stay close to Sufjan and his siblings. Eventually, Lowell and Sufjan would start the enormously successful Asthmatic Kitty record lable, which the two still lead.
So this isn’t a happy album. I’ve heard his more optimistic religious followers describe it as an album about “grief and redemption.” I don’t like that description at all. Honestly, aside from a few glimmers of light, this is dark, brutal stuff. There’s no false hope, no easy answers, no tidy conclusion. Death happens, it hurts him, and he eventually kind of moves on, but not really. Having lost a close friend to tragic circumstances this year, I’d say this album is remarkably accurate in how it conveys the emotions that accompany loss. Time in itself doesn’t heal all wounds. You just learn how to live differently with them until, for better or worse, they are a part of you.
Though a tough listen, this is an album of depth and beauty. In college I heard one of my more melodramatic professors say, “Good poetry wounds before it heals.” As pretentious as that quote sounds, he’s exactly right.
Fact: A/V Club recently interviewed Lowell here.
Standout Songs: Eugene, Fourth of July, John My Beloved
“Well you do enough talk, my little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?
On the 4th of July?
We’re all gonna die.”
– From ‘Fourth of July’
Buy his albums at music.sufjan.com