To call Sufjan Stevens’ career “prolific” would be a profound understatement. The multi-instrumentalist, composer, lyricist and vocalist has produced original works across a seemingly limitless spectrum of genres including electronic, rock, folk, lo-fi and theatre. He even arranged 10 full-length volumes of Christmas music.
As a result, Stevens’ oeuvre has become defined by its indefinability. His most recent album, however, Carrie and Lowell—which was released on March 31 under his own Asthmatic Kitty record label—completely betrays this precedent.
C&L demonstrates a dramatic regression in Stevens’ approach to songwriting. It returns to a sound reminiscent of his 2004 release Seven Swans—noted for its minimal instrumentation, simple melodies and straightforward song structures. Like the wistful daydream of an oak tree recalling its days as an acorn, C&L sees Stevens returning to his past and creating something inexplicably honest and beautiful from it.
The album’s only pre-released single “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” attests to the emotional power of this simplicity. There is only one guitar part, articulated in the same basic picking pattern as the rest of the album and accompanied by a fairly dry vocal performance. There are a few harmonies, but they are ethereal and float around the stereo space like ghosts of the actual melody. “Fuck me, I’m falling apart,” Stevens sings in an airy falsetto, although the lyric would be more appropriately shouted cathartically at the sky.
Ultimately, the genius of C&L lies in its restraint. Unlike Stevens’ last studio album The Age of Adz––which could be characterized by words like cinematic, symphonic, cathartic and maximal––C&L transmutes emotional impact into its most essential state, favoring honesty and simplicity over grandeur. Stevens says it himself on the album’s opening track “Death with Dignity,” singing playfully, “I got nothing to prove.”
The album is also consistently more intimate than his previous works. Songs like “Should Have Known Better” deal directly with Stevens’ relationship with his mother. Whereas Seven Swans relies on biblical narratives and elements of history and fantasy, C&L tears away extravagancies to reveal a boy whose mother “left us at that video store.”
There are no—or at least very few—images evoked on C&L that take the listener out of the immediate reality of the music. Lyrical references to the external world are expunged and replaced with a focus on the very strange, murky internal world of the individual––a world that does not just belong to Stevens, but to everyone.
The song “Fourth of July” further examines Stevens’ relationship with his now-deceased mother in the form of a hypothetical conversation. The result is a heartbreaking back and forth with a ghost—a sort of lyrical eulogy for a woman who is obviously very much responsible for who Sufjan is today.
Overall, Carrie and Lowell is beautiful in a very singular way. The combination of musical restraint and lyrical honesty fills the album with emotion and there is always a sort of muted catharsis bubbling just beneath the surface.
The album is certainly Stevens’ most autobiographical. It brings to my mind the image of a 30-something year old man living in a sweaty little apartment in Manhattan, singing songs about his mother into a consumer-grade condenser microphone while an AC unit hums away in the window.
There are no frills, no distractions—just honesty. And—as always—I am infinitely intrigued to know what he will do next.