Carrie and Lowell
It isn’t so much that Sufjan Stevens has put a foot wrong, more that he’s been too nimble, too keen to put feet all over the place, to stretch far and wide, to keep wiggling, always moving…(not all that often grooving too, mind). But it’s been hard for him to beat a remarkable trilogy of records that started in 2003 with the first of his (seemingly) abandoned “states” albums, Michigan and culminated two years later with Illinois, the album that introduced him to a wider audience.
Since then it hasn’t at all been diminishing returns, but it’s been hard to follow him through too much folly. Christmas albums and EPs, rap-groups, glitter-painted noise-rock, improve-weirdness…his strength, his real strength, seemed to be in the way his breathy, charming, slightly creepy songs spoke of weirdness but felt, well, straight, seamless, lovingly coaxed and easy.
Carrie and Lowell feels like the best Sufjan Stevens album in a while because it is a return to that magical run of earlier albums, it is a return to that palette, that feel, those feelings…his voice and words the star, no need to show off with the musical settings, it’s more about correctly framing these pieces. So it’s delicate and soft without ever seeming like softing out, it’s on the safe side of eccentric, never kooky or quirky – not to the point of distraction.
Sufjan Stevens has kept (so) busy and sometimes he’s thrown it all at the wall but Carrie and Lowell feels like a rebirth and/or return, it feels like the start (all over) of a singer/songwriter working with art rather than artifice.
A memoir of his early childhood and then shot through with remembrances of that childhood as an adult, the album’s titular “stars” are Stevens’ drug-abusing, bi-polar, negligent mother and his early role-model stepfather.
Because Stevens has sung of his life across his albums – as well as real-life and imagined characters – Carrie and Lowell sends you back to those earlier albums, not just because of the sound, but because you know have a few new clues. The mother who “betrayed” him on Illinois’ The Seer’s Tower is fleshed out here. The clues arriving in reverse, perhaps.
And from All of Me Wants All of You, with its Art Garfunkel-like vocal, through the title track (please keep it away from the next Cameron Crowe soundtrack!) to the elegiac hues of the closing tunes, John My Beloved, No Shade In The Shadow of the Grass and Blue Bucket of Gold we’re in a world of sombreness, sincerity and ghosts. It’s beautiful. It’s sad. It’s Sufjan Stevens at his best. Real as he’s ever been.