As I sit in the Starbucks on State Street, light rain grazing the windows and plaguing the faces of incoming customers, I figure it’s a good time to listen to Sufjan Stevens. I’m sipping coffee; I feel existential and introspective. The weather is cementing these feelings. So let’s go, Stevens. Throw me all the emotional hoopla you’ve got.

Carrie & Lowell

A
Sufjan Stevens
Asthmatic Kitty


Stevens, first name pronounced “Soof-yahn,” is a Michigan native and master of eliciting what hip young kids are calling “the feels.” A graduate of Hope College and The New School, his intelligent lyrics, melodic inventiveness and directional fearlessness make him both a critical darling and cult favorite. And he’s been at it since 2000 — a veteran, to be sure, yet consistently youthful in sound.

So what exactly does his career entail? His genre, his trajectory thus far — it’s all so impossible to pinpoint. He’s been everywhere and done everything. Notable endeavors include (but aren’t limited to) the following: a folky, orchestral album set in Chicago concerning all things emotional and Midwestern (Illinois, 2005); a conflicted, wondrously complex electronic beast rooted in the vibrant Louisiana (The Age of Adz, 2010); a buxom, five-disc Christmas extravaganza (Songs for Christmas, 2006) and more. Many more. Indeed, the aforementioned trio deserves a deep listen, vanilla latte in hand.

As for 2015’s Carrie & Lowell? Well, that deserves everything.

The first few notes of “Death with Dignity,” the opening track, cooingly allow the listener to know they have embarked on some sort of ethereal, profoundly sad journey. It’s one of the strongest on the album. “I don’t know where to begin,” Stevens sings in his fragile, pleading whisper. Never has a voice that sounds like the irresistibly thin glass vase in your house — you know, the one that will shatter into tragic chunks if dropped (sorry, mom) — sounded so stunning. Dreamy, plucked acoustic guitar weeps along with Stevens as he ventures this time to Eugene, Oregon — a land of painful, poetic and potent shards of the past.

The two figureheads of the album, Carrie and Lowell, featured on the cover in all their ’80s glory, are vital to understanding Stevens’s pain. His mother, Carrie, suffered from depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse all her life; she left the family when Stevens was a baby because she thought herself unfit to raise children. Carrie married Lowell Brams soon after, and Stevens and his siblings traveled to their home in Oregon for a few summers during his childhood. These trips house the only memories he has of Carrie; Stevens struggled with the sparseness of their relationship and his surprising grief upon her passing in 2012.

You can hear the struggle in almost every song on the album. “Carrie & Lowell,” the title track, is a moving ode to that elusive duo complete with hymn-like harmonies (think: “Scarborough Fair” by Simon & Garfunkel. Carrie & Lowell, Simon & Garfunkel. Stevens must have a thing for duos.)

“Should Have Known Better” and “Eugene” sound interestingly child-like, etched with pretty, subtle piano and simple melodies. They’re semi-pleasant and serve a great contrast to tunes like “All of Me Wants All of You,” a song with introverted lyrics like “I trace your shadow with my shoe.” I have no idea what that means, but it made me cry in public. So thanks, Stevens. Good things, good things.

Soft but pounding strumming propels us forward on “Drawn to the Blood.” Here, Stevens reaches his falsetto for a few precious seconds in the chorus and descends soon after, soulfully mirroring the ups and downs of a wail. Almost all of the songs on the album follow this sob-inspired structure melodically. They tend to crescendo about half way through, as you would at the peak of a mournful cry (“Fourth of July”), and then they sigh their way back down toward the end — the cleansing, regulating aftermath (“The Only Thing”). Breathe in, breathe out and cap it off with some misty, dissonant chords. It works.

One of the chilling things about Sufjan Stevens is his lyrical repetition. In “Casmir Pulaski Day” off Illinois, as he’s doubting God’s intentions after the death of a friend, he whispers, “and He takes, and He takes, and He takes.” All it takes is this redundancy to do you in for good — similarly, as he gently croons “We’re all gonna die” on “Fourth of July,” the listener is in shambles by the fifth time around. Religious tones also seep through on Carrie & Lowell. “John My Beloved” has Stevens looking to perhaps the eponymous disciple for strength over a beautifully stripped background. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is equally heart-wrenching, and “Blue Bucket of Gold” is a captivatingly melancholy-yet-hopeful end to a tremendous musical feat for Stevens.

Simplistic folk takes the front seat — there’s no tinkering with genres, electronics, tempos or keys here. It’s just a man and his guitar — against the world, like Elliott Smith or Bob Dylan? Not quite, though the album has hints of both of these gents. Rather, Stevens is strumming against the death of a soul (perhaps the soul). In that way, this is folk taken to the next level. Carrie would’ve been proud.

As I finish the album, I think about a certain theory regarding death — one that proposes that the inevitable end of one human paves the way for the creation of another. Stevens said in an interview with Pitchfork that he doesn’t plan on having kids, as he’s slightly jaded from his own dissatisfying experience with family. So maybe his baby is this album, the bones from which he builds a freshly contemplative genre of folk — full of life. A new life.

I look up from my seat. It stopped raining.

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