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How Not to Listen to the New Sufjan Stevens Album

Can we avoid turning the Brooklyn-based artist and Christian into a poster boy?
How Not to Listen to the New Sufjan Stevens Album
Image: Jordi Vidal / Getty Images

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, ...

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How Not to Listen to the New Sufjan Stevens Album
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