Tuesday, May 12, 2015

album review: 'carrie & lowell' by sufjan stevens

Man, it's taken me too damn long to get to this review, especially considering this is a guy I've been wanting to talk about for a while but have always had a hard time nailing him down. Because of the many, many artists I've talked about, Sufjan Stevens is damn close to one of a kind - and for the longest time, I had just ignored him because on my first few listens through his debut, he was just another quirky singer-songwriter from the indie scene that had critical acclaim and little else that really stuck with me.

And man, was I wrong in spectacular fashion. After a hard left-turn into weird electronica, Sufjan Stevens dropped the absolutely incredible Michigan, a tribute to his home state that had such an incredible balance of sound and tone it's incredible. Sufjan might not be the biggest presence as a singer - one of the reasons I've found him difficult to get into in the past was that he tended to feel overtaken by his instrumentation - but his writing and hooks were impressively detailed and eclectic, with a vibrant energy and life that made the odd kitsch of his instrumentation incredibly endearing. Is it a little over-long, off-kilter, and oddly corny at points? Yeah, but I didn't mind it, because the songwriting was so well-grounded and human that it clicked incredibly well.

Ever since then, though, Sufjan Stevens' work has struggled to recapture that balance. The closest for me came on Seven Swans, which eased things back perhaps a bit too much to bring the songwriting into tighter focus - which I'll admit clicked because most albums exploring religion with Stevens' complicated brand of framing have a lot of potential to really connect with me. His follow-up state album Illinoise went in the opposite direction and was even more elaborate, and while it did hit some spectacular highs, it didn't quite stick the landing as well for me. And then came The Age Of Adz, a weird, warped record diving back into electronics in a way that felt even more garish than before - and honestly, it doesn't quite connect, at least for me.

So when I heard that Sufjan was stripping things down to folk again and opting for a much tighter, personal focus, I was looking forward to it, especially considering the titular characters of his late mother and stepfather are placed in greater focus. Of course there'll always be moments of indulgence that are quintessential parts of his records, but it's been over a decade since Seven Swans - so what did Sufjan Stevens deliver as he came home?

Well, I'll say this: Sufjan Stevens delivered, with Carrie & Lowell, a genuinely beautiful, thought-provoking, heartfelt record that I have no qualms saying is excellent - but it's also the sort of album that I will only revisit when I have to this year. By that I mean it's a hard record for me to listen through - not that it's bad or even that it's especially challenging from an intellectual standpoint, but that the emotional undercurrents and themes of this record make it an uncomfortable listen. Listening through this album, I feel I'm listening to someone's very private experience in a confessional, and I'm no priest - which makes judging this album even harder. In other words, I think I appreciate and respect this album more than I outright love it.

So let's talk about the areas where I can be a little more critical, and let's start with Sufjan Stevens himself. On this record, his long-held love for Paul Simon becomes so obvious it's not even funny, and the quiet despair of his reserved delivery evokes a pretty potent brand of empathy. I talked yesterday in my Chris Stapleton review that it's often better to go over-the-top than undersell it, but Sufjan brings a layer of subtlety to his performance that not only supports the writing, but brings additional context. Sure, his voice might not be the greatest and his falsetto might seem thin and his emotive range might seem very narrow, but it works here because it's clear very early that so much of it is a facade, composure that's breaking at the seams.

What isn't breaking is the instrumentation, which might have stripped down to acoustic guitars, pianos, and hints of spacious effects, but it's still recognizable as a Sufjan Stevens work. The tones are clean without feeling polished, the pianos and guitars are worn without breaking or feeling chintzy, and the supple melody lines when they come through are gorgeous. The opening track 'Death With Dignity''s echo of the guitar and piano line is masterful, the layered guitars of 'All Of Me Wants All Of You' is eerie and striking, 'Fourth Of July's ghostly swell has some of the most tasteful usage of reverb to accent a hushed isolated piano line I've heard all year, the instrumental interlude midway through 'The Only Thing' takes the song's uncomfortable and intentional disconnect between gentle instrumentation and lyrical self-destruction and interjects a gorgeous acoustic-touched guitar swell as the multi-tracking on the vocals thickens. Then there's the mournful synth outro on 'Carrie & Lowell', the perfect sombre punctuation to a shattered relationship, the gentle piano melody behind the muffled percussion of 'John My Beloved', and especially the muted piano of 'Blue Bucket Of Gold' that fades into waves of shimmering guitars that fade into echoing voices amidst the wall of sound that, nevertheless, gives no answer. If I'm going to complain about the instrumentation, it'd be, like with most Sufjan Stevens records, it feels a little indulgent at points - yes, even as stripped back as it is, I get the feeling a slightly tighter edit might have helped even further, especially considering the very muted and understated tone of the album. It's not one that builds to climaxes or moments of startling clarity... but again, that's the point.

And yeah, now we have to talk about lyrics and themes... and here's the thing: this might be one of Sufjan's most plain-spoken and personal records in a long time, talking his intimate framing even tighter as we gaze into his own life. And the first thing that I noticed is that the sequencing of this album is odd, namely that it seems to start at a moment of acceptance and then begin to break down from there - in other words, the opposite of most grieving processes, but all the more human for it. It almost seems like Sufjan's unpacking his own grief and feelings surrounding his mother - and by extension, his faith, which he openly questions on this album with a depth and frankness that I really did appreciate. What's immediately interesting is that for as much as Sufjan puts on a face of resolve early on, his relationship with his mother was complicated - she was reckless and abused drugs, left him and his siblings behind in a video store once, and the implication on the title track is that she might have broken his arm. There's unresolved anger and bitterness that he's kept penned away, and though I'd argue this album's composure never quite breaks, it doesn't shy away from letting it come to the surface. But then again, Sufjan isn't shy about admitting that his distance didn't help matters, as he found it harder than ever to care like on 'All Of Me Wants All Of You'.

But it runs deeper than that when we get to Sufjan's relationship with God. You could default to thinking that his angst here links back to the classic question of why bad things happen to good people, but Sufjan's aiming for something deeper: the concept of faith and unrequited love. Even though he might not respect his mother, he still loves her and it's still a relationship to which he feels compelled to contribute. And it's the same thing with faith: in the face of that implacable truth that is death - which is referenced but never really dwelt upon in detail - he puts his faith in a higher power praying for some form of solace... and it's not coming. And here's where I think Sufjan does something special: he doesn't take the coward's way out in this conversation, because I've seen so much bad Christian music just point towards to faith and say that it's enough. But Sufjan doesn't give that happy ending, because his mother is still dead and even as his behavior deteriorates, things aren't getting better. There's a line in 'Drawn To The Blood' I really love, even though I don't really love the song: 'Delilah, avenge my grief' - he calls upon the woman who made Samson just like any other man by chopping off his hair to do something against a higher power... and the futility of such of a task. The myth of Icarus is referenced in similar symbolism on 'John My Beloved', a man constantly reaching for the sun of enlightenment, only for it to burn away the wax of his wings. If we're looking for a theme, it's futility, both in the face of death and in the face of a God that doesn't answer. And I absolutely love the ending track 'Blue Bucket Of Gold', mostly for a few lyrics, the first being 'Once the myth has been told / The lens deforms it as lightning' - in other words, whatever perception of higher power that comes beyond death is going to be warped by our own experiences, and we'll never fully understand it - if there's even something to understand, note the word 'myth'. And yet we STILL cling for it anyway - we still crave that lightning, that hope, that deeper understanding that might be abhorrent to reason, but in the face of the impossible, for what else can we hope? And what I love about this album is that Sufjan leaves the question open: there's no easy answer, and a record that spent its length breaking its composure can't reassemble, and arguably that's the hardest thing to take.

And that's why, while I respect the hell out of this record and I think it's damn, damn great and maybe close to being one of the best of the year, it's also the sort of record that I'll find hard to revisit. And it's not the only album that left open questions this year: hell, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly left all sorts of open questions for the world at large that have no easy answer, but there's was a core to that record that made you feel there might be a way to solve it - it wouldn't be easy, but there was a way. Carrie & Lowell doesn't even give you that - there's no closure to it, which of course is very, very human, because life seldom gives that final, easy answer, especially with grief and God. And yet that's hard to take, because on some level you want to believe humanity is more than just staring into the void, praying for an answer that might never come - hell, I get the feeling Sufjan wants to believe that more than anyone. So back to the album, Carrie & Lowell is a harrowing release and downright excellent, but when moments of humanizing detail end up adding some intellectual space from the raw emotion, you know you might have pushed too deep - and yet the strange thing is that I feel this album is slightly more gripping in its concept than execution. So for me, it's an extremely strong 8/10 and definitely a recommendation - but a conditional one. If you're a person of faith like I am, or you've recently lost someone close, this will not be an easy listen - but then again, it's humanity, and it's art - it's not supposed to be easy.

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