‘Carrie and Lowell’ seems to have been followed around by a tagline; “Sufjan Stevens’ return to his folk roots”. This isn’t surprising, given his last ‘proper’ LP- 2010’s ‘The Age of Adz’. Many fans and critics were not completely sold on his blending of the lush, orchestral instrumentation he’s become known for with cold electronics and scattered beats. Such people were no doubt delighted to hear promotion for ‘Carrie’ involving Sufjan tenderly plucking an acoustic guitar. However, this album is anything but a return to form; in fact we’d argue that it has less in common with Sufjan’s previous work than ‘Age of Adz’ does. All of these changes reflect the enormous change in Stevens’ life that prove to be the overwhelming inspiration for the album; the death of his mother Carrie in 2012. The result is an honest portrait of grief which is extremely particular to his own experience, yet will no doubt prove to be highly relatable on what is one of the most difficult, ineffable and universal aspects of the human experience.
In terms of songwriting - structurally at least - little has changed. Strip away the intricate arrangements of an enormous plethora of instrumentation that he layers over his albums and you’d be left with simple folk songs revolving around 1 or 2 chord sequences. It’s due to his production and keen sense of melody that he’s able to string them out for 5, 6 or 7 minutes at a time. Though there is additional instrumentation to the piano or acoustic guitar which mostly accompany Sufjan’s voice, it doesn’t come in layers. Subtle features like the electric guitar which echoes the vocal line of The Only Thing, the resonant hammered dulcimer in All Of Me Wants All Of You and the bleeping synth in Drawn To The Blood are spotlighted. Rather than orchestral swells, songs build with small details; a call and response vocal in the second verse, a harmony in the third, or another layer of guitar picking. Accordingly, songs rarely exceed 4 minutes.
The arrangements put the vocals in the centre, which is fitting as his lyrics really do flourish on this LP. Whilst Sufjan is no stranger to writing autobiographically, his doing so is usually steeped in the same fantasy as his songs about history or mythology; presenting himself as a character on a quest or as part of a larger narrative. There are certainly moments that do this, such as his rousing declaration to keep it together on the outro of Should Have Known Better. However, in many moments he lays himself bare in the same way as the music surrounding him does, with lines like “you checked your text whilst I masturbated” and “fuck me, I’m falling apart”. Through all this, Sufjan manages to write poetically enough to communicate profound and complex feelings. We see his anger at his mother for not being there during his childhood, lamenting “you’ll never see us again” rather than the other way around. We see his disconnectedness to her; “your apparition passes through me” and yet his pining for her; “be my rest, be my fantasy”.
Sufjan Stevens has been many things over his career; story teller, historian, social commentator, alien from another planet. This is the record where he sounds most human. That does not necessarily mean it is his best work though. Whilst each individual song is well written and produced, there is a tonal monotony and slightly linear feel to the record as a whole. Many people will surely prefer this side of Sufjan, particularly those that resonate with the lyrical themes but there are moments where his whispered delivery comes across slightly motionless. Regardless of what any particular person thinks of it- the fact that Sufjan has the capability to constantly explore new sides of his songwriting and - most crucially - of himself is testament to what an enduringly brilliant artist he is.
Words: Rob Paterson