new album, Carrie & Lowell
, is his most personal and moving yet. With an admirable musical reputation that has garnered him comparisons to Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, this album only solidifies his place in that canon. Stevens's whispery voice over clear guitar chords sway you like a lullaby, but the nature of the lyrics are much darker. The album pivots around the event of his absent mother's death in 2012. The only memories Stevens has of Carrie are a few summers he spent in Oregon between the ages of 5 and 8. She suffered from lifelong depression, schizophrenia, and drug dependency, and she was frequently homeless, roaming and battling her inner torments and addictions. For five years in the early '80's, she was married to Lowell Brams for what seemed like a short reprieve from an otherwise very difficult life. Brams remained close with Sufjan Stevens and is now the director of Stevens's label Asthmatic Kitty.
In the past Stevens' music has combined folklore, religion and mythology with a sense of solitary sentimentality, but that is absent from this album. Those big archetypical, metaphorical symbols and that sentimentality isn't here, its something else; it's something more real. Those sensibilities have been challenged in the wake of dealing with the trauma of his mother's absence. In an interview with Pitchfork
, Stevens said, "It's something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother's death... to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It's not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life. And to me that seems to be what makes it the highest form of art, humble like an outstretched hand searching for connection, searching for peace." In this interview and in this album, Stevens is disarmingly open and honest.
There's something so mature and evolved about the music; it feels poignant without presumption, aware without self-conscious sentimentality. It's pared down, naked and raw. In perhaps the most beautiful song on the album, "John My Beloved" the last lines speak to this: "There's only a shadow of me/in a manner of speaking I'm dead," and then he ends the song with an inhale, leaving us suspended somewhere between the discomfort of being withheld the exhale and the ephemeral beauty of the song. Stevens said he was calm and practical as his mother was dying but then was susceptible to bouts of emotional outbursts at random. He dealt with suicidal thoughts in the months following her death,\ but then would be taken back to life with the beauty that surrounds our banal lives. Life tests us constantly, sometimes to the brink, and one day inevitably across it, but the beauty of this album, conceived from that suffering, is something worth sticking around for.