Sufjan Stevens released his studio album Carrie and Lowell this week. It’s a record inspired primarily by the death of his estranged mother several years ago. As such, it’s raw, beautiful, and delicate. This is Stevens’s fifth proper album, but the prolific Brooklyn-based artist has been making folk, rock, electronic, and neoclassical music for 15 years, music that’s always informed by his Christian faith, even if not always explicitly so.
Carrie and Lowell is Stevens's most personal and intimate album yet, providing a window into his grief; into his love for and abandonment by his mother; and into his journey through all kinds of unhealthy coping mechanisms in the wake of loss. There are hints at substances, sex, and suicidal thoughts throughout the album, but they are treated with a light melancholy, evoking the early records of Elliott Smith and the more tender ballads of Simon and Garfunkel.
Carrie and Lowell marks two new directions for Stevens. First, every song here is an exercise in restraint and economy. The exceptions are the ambient instrumental outros on a handful of tracks. Even these feel necessary given the ethereal, somber mood of the record. Second, Stevens has abandoned the high-concept artifice of his other work and its epic themes: American history, the Chinese zodiac, the outsider artist and self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, to name a few. Carrie and Lowell does have a concept, but it is one taken directly from the singer’s experience. As Stevens told Pitchfork this winter, “This is not my art project; this is my life.”
It is difficult to identify a “standout” track on this album. All are short, gentle, and sparse. The first, “Death With Dignity,” and the last, “Blue Bucket of Gold,” are among the most melodically arresting. But most of the songs paint similar landscapes: memories of Carrie mix with feelings of regret and confusion (“I should’ve wrote a letter / explaining what I feel,” from “Should’ve Known Better”) and questions about the meaning of suffering (“My prayer has always been love / what did I do to deserve this?” Stevens pleads on “Drawn to the Blood).
There aren’t “answers” provided here, though at times the lyrics make clear the source of Stevens’s will to carry on: the beauty of his niece, friendship and romantic love, and his faith in Christ.
Aside from Carrie and Lowell’s artistic merits, its uncomfortably naked premise offers a chance to reflect on evangelicals’ embrace of Stevens and his music. If it is increasingly clear that Stevens is not, in fact, the poster boy for hipster Christianity we might have once taken him for, can Christians continue to receive his music as a gift instead of as a “statement” about the integration of art and faith?
Christians first began paying attention to Stevens after the release of his 2004 album, Seven Swans. While many were aware that his previous album, Michigan, touched on spiritual themes (for example, “Vito’s Ordination Song,” written for his Presbyterian pastor friend Vito Aiuto, also one-half of The Welcome Wagon), Seven Swans was both biblical and devotional, with songs about Abraham and Isaac and the Transfiguration as well as more worshipful tracks such as “To Be Alone with You.” The album cemented Stevens’s place as a respected indie-folk singer-songwriter and a serious Christian voice within mainstream music. Indie-rock tastemakers loved Seven Swans, and “we” had a guy on the inside, it seemed.
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