Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens, crown prince of indie folk, has released his most personal album till date. For a lot of artists, this is the part where the critic, with a heavy heart, announces that over-indulgence and an inescapable proximity to the subject matter have spoiled what could have been a great album. Not so for Stevens, who has quietly dropped a jaw-dropper, undoubtedly his greatest album: despite the considerable achievements of Michigan and Illinois, the minimalist appeal of Seven Swans or the constant surprises thrown up by The Age of Adz, it is Carrie & Lowell that will now be cited as signature Sufjan.
The 11 tracks on this album were written after the death of Stevens’ mother, Carrie, a bipolar schizophrenic who abandoned him repeatedly in his childhood and struggled with substance abuse for much of her adult life. The first track, Death With Dignity, well and truly sets the tone for the rest of the album: dreamy acoustic arrangements that accompany Stevens’ whispers like the sound of a river, brutally honest lyrics and a curious, indefinable peace about proceedings, despite the heartbreak and pain being described.
Stevens has hit that mid-career sweet spot as far as songwriting is concerned. The religious and the personal coalesce with ease in Carrie & Lowell, particularly in tracks like Drawn to the Blood and John My Beloved, both of whom are among the best things Stevens has ever written. The latter features these lines, which will have you hitting the pause button, waiting for them to sink in: “So can we be friends, sweetly/ Before the mystery ends?/ I love you more than the world can contain/ In its lonely and ramshackle head/ There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead.”
The song Fourth of July is as close to an autobiography as Stevens is likely to get, with its straight-faced refrain “We’re all gonna die”. In fact, the one and only time something remotely upbeat happens in this album is when he talks about his little niece in Should Have Known Better. Not that we are complaining: Stevens is at the peak of his powers and Carrie & Lowell is one of the albums of the year.