Sufjan Stevens is indie rock’s closest thing to a saint recording music in the new millennium. For unbelievers, he’s a Christian voice worth listening to due to how well he weds innovation, intelligence and authenticity in his songwriting. For those of faith, the same applies with the added bonus that he speaks the language of belief in a vocabulary just foreign enough to shed light on new nooks and crannies.
On his newest offering, Carrie & Lowell, he proves yet again how powerful his messages are no matter how hushed his singing may be.
The new record should come as an especially welcome surprise for those pining for the folk style he abandoned on 2010’s The Age of Adz. It’s a simple fact most of us fell in love with his music when he was using horns, banjos and acoustic guitars rather than a glorious cacophony of synthesizers.
His whirling electronic experimentation didn’t get in the way of his empathic hospitality, but you can’t help but think the fingerpicked intro to Carrie & Lowell’s first song, “Death with Dignity,” is as much a return to home base for Stevens as it is for his fans.
Nearly all Stevens’ records operate around a central concept, and it’s deeply saddening that the central theme of this one is the death of his mother. Grief soaks every ballad here—the emotion met perfectly with instrumentation and lyricism just subtle and honest enough to portray how heartbreaking this experience was to him. In past interviews, Stevens has referred to how he wasn’t that close to his mother, and in track after track on this album, you can feel the pain of losing someone he already lost in large part years ago.
He’s also back to predominately telling stories and painting pictures of a spiritually enlivened mundanity. Where The Age of Adz specialized in impressionistic ally writing about anxiety, Carrie & Lowell uses word pictures just specific and just vague enough to ground us both in Stevens’ life as well as our own.
There are references to being left at a video store when he was three or four, learning to swim from an instructor who calls him Subaru, and memories called up by the Fourth of July.
It’s that last one (detailed in a song plainly titled “Fourth of July”) which may be the record’s true standout. Over ethereal soundscapes, a lilting piano chord progression anchors Stevens’ remembrance of the events and conversations immediately preceding his mother’s death. In the midst of asking her questions about what life has taught her, calling her pet names and dealing with hospital workers, he repeatedly intones “We’re all gonna die.”
This is the general theme of the record: the looming presence of the reaper’s scythe ready to take us all and most of our friends and family before we go. There comes a time when grief will become one of the most common tunes sung in everyone’s life, and, luckily, we now have an entire album of songs to teach us how to sing that unfortunate medley.
The first single off the album, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” proved early on this was to be no conventional hymnal. The title of that song should give you an idea of its content but you could argue it’s no more blasphemous than the book of Job (though it does employ the use of particularly strong language and some profanity).
Death is given all its due here, and that means God can be seen as a friend on one track, absent on another and close to an enemy on yet another. It’s not the sort of worship music you’d hear in a megachurch anytime soon, but it certainly is worshipful. It’s a weeping Psalter for 2015, and it’s one we needed desperately without even realizing it.
If you’ve been waiting for Stevens to offer up another record as spiritually evocative and blissfully introspective as Seven Swans, this is it. Then again, it’s so restrained it makes that record sound gargantuan in comparison and Illinoise seem like a bonafide rock opera.
Has Stevens been more obviously inventive before? Undeniably. But he’s as unique and essential on Carrie & Lowell as he’s been on any of his previous outings. The edge this one in particular has going for it is that it seems like his most vulnerable work to date—even for a musician whose specialty is vulnerability. The stripped down instrumentation is an apt metaphor for how bare and open he is throughout it.
In showing us himself after loss as honestly as he could, Stevens helps us understand ourselves, each other and whatever may be beyond us better than we ever could without his help. All this to say: you can’t get to the end of Carrie & Lowell without wanting to say “Thank you.”
Mack Hayden is a budding writer and college student. He blogs at Biola's Culture Context. And there's plenty of tweeting going on over at @unionmack.