A matter of geography put Sufjan Stevens on the map for many listeners some 10 years ago, with the release of his seminal LP Illinois. It was a grandiose, weighty, widescreen indie-pop opus; equal parts celebration, observation, introspection and damnation. Those that knew of Stevens’ work prior to Illinois‘ release, however, would have had a stronger comprehension of the bigger picture in his discography.
It certainly explained the divisive nature of the LP that followed, 2009’s The Age of Adz, as well as the experimental streak running through his live performances
during this period. Essentially, Sufjan Stevens is – and always has been – the kind of artist that changes the questions just when you think you know all of the answers.
On Carrie & Lowell, the pacing changes once again. The masses that gathered behind Stevens on prior albums have dispersed, with only a select few voices that are not his own remaining. This, in conjunction with the close and immediate production, has assisted in reducing the aesthetic to bare whispers, gently blowing breeze and creaking floorboards.
The intimacy here is reflected twofold, as Stevens himself divulges some of his most strikingly honest and personal lyrics to date. In case the album’s cover art did not already make the matter clear, Carrie & Lowell doubles as both the album title and the given names of both Stevens’ mother and stepfather.
Family is at the core of this album, particularly when it comes to the title track and Should Have Known Better. Eugene also tears at the heartstrings; most notably in its final lyric: “What’s the point of singing songs,” he laments, “if they’ll never even hear you?”
The insular and introverted nature of Carrie and Lowell is, at times, betrayed by the distance Stevens paints himself against. While he’s often relied on character study and analysis in the past on his finer tracks, there’s something about these ones having an all-too-real presence which resonates on a deeper level.
If anyone comes out of this record with the scars to prove it, it’s Stevens. By album’s end, he is riddled with remorse, regret and guilt. He is revealed to be, for lack of a better term, his own worst enemy.
The clearly cathartic nature with which he demonises his own behaviour discloses a potential resolve and newfound clarity on matters which have clearly haunted him for many years. You’ll be glad Carrie and Lowell finally came to fruition – it stands in Stevens’ canon as one of his most important releases.
‘Carrie & Lowell’ is released in Australia, Friday, 3rd April. Sufjan Stevens will play as part of Vivid LIVE this May.