Sufjan_Stevens_playing_banjo

photo by Joe Lencioni

A visionary with the ability to grasp hearts, Sufjan Stevens has laid it all out on the table in what could be his best yet with Carrie & Lowell (2015).

From gifted hands comes the Detroit native’s seventh full-length studio release on Asthmatic Kitty Records; Carrie & Lowell is steeped in his quintessential transcendence while seamlessly integrating new sounds. Oscillating from heart-wrenching ballads to haunting hymns and back again, Stevens transports his listeners into an otherworldly realm as vivid and visceral as the most sophisticated trance music using almost entirely organic instruments.

Dancing around themes of death and faith, the album as a whole is simultaneously depressing and hopeful, dark and light. With layered vocals spaced apart by subtle delays and slight tonal shifts, Stevens’ voice fills each track and breathes life into the album’s skeletal structure of string instrumentals.

The ascending and repetitive banjo progression in “Death with Dignity” begins the album on a delicate note that pulls the listener into the emotional headspace that is played out throughout the following tracks. Stevens stacks lyrics in a call-and-response fashion; the line between dream and reality grows even fainter when the track’s vocal melody is echoed in the piano accompaniment.

Second track and single “Should Have Known Better” builds behind an angelic choir and encapsulates the album’s ability to blend organic and synthetic sounds to produce a listening experience unlike any other emanating from new-age folk music. With lyrics that ask its subject to “be my quest, be my fantasy” arrive a longing for something just out of reach. The feeling is resolved with an uplifting synthesizer break towards the end of the song where emphasis is placed on finding the silver lining in the mundane.

“All of Me Wants All of You” introduces a different cadence where sexual undertones and a more candid desire are communicated through wavering vocals and ambient electric guitars; “Drawn to the Blood” completes this rhythmic shift and serves a high point in the album where sentiments of desperation and whimsicality work together to establish a dualism in imagery such as “flight of the one winged dove.”

“Eugene” and “Fourth of July” occupy opposite poles in terms of energy but both conjure feelings of youthful vulnerability and the potency of young reactions to themes such as death and the celebration of life. While the former evokes the reverie of a drive through the suburbs on a sunny day, the latter taps into the vein of innocent curiosity and confusion when confronted with wider realities.

“The Only Thing” conveys a maturing disillusionment with the state of the world and trivializes death as an end to the disappointments of life where “faith in reason” and “signs and wonders” serve as bursts of bright love that keep us from driving over a figurative cliff. The record’s title track brings the banjo back as an album centerpiece and explores themes of wonder with simple experiences and the love that can be found amid the surrounding strife. Because the circle cannot be broken, “My Beloved John” drips with sorrow and nostalgia, where fears of the ensuing end of fantasy brings premonitions of death.

The first single, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” begins with the sound of crashing waves and delivers one of the album’s most memorable lines: “I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart, lonely vampire inhaling its fire, I’m chasing the dragon too far.” It goes beyond Stevens’ expected lyrical puppetry and evokes the image a opiate-induced delirium where the lighted path of faith becomes clouded and convoluted through time and space.

Finally, “Blue Bucket of Gold” furthers the conceptualization of this album as a sort of requiem where the messages levitate atop a superstructure of spiritual sounds. The valley of silence in the middle of this song represents a final rest where the conclusion swells yet again and turns the focus of inquiry to the possibility of life beyond death.

A sensational ode to life, death, and the spaces between, Carrie & Lowell is a defining mark in the course of Sufjan Stevens’ career. With all of the tenderness of Seven Swans (2004) and a body of sound comparable to that achieved in Illinois (2005), this release has once again proven that Stevens retains his crown of songwriting mastery. He is a storyteller, a prophet, and—most importantly—an individual finding creative expression and artistry through everyday subject matter and practice. The album is powerfully relatable and its propensity to pierce our innermost parts reminds us that despite it all, we are still human with all of the anxieties and exaltations that come with the territory.

Article by Conner Smith 

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