Review Summary: Sufjan Stevens' latest album is as close to a physical album as can be achieved.
Can our old favourites surprise us? A friend of mine once said that everyone has a finite amount of good songs in them. On Sufjan Stevens' seventh album, I’ve discovered something new and surprising about the man who wrote ‘Chicago’ – and I feel richer for it.
Carrie and Lowell chronicles Sufjan’s difficult upbringing which I never knew existed – previous releases had sounded simultaneously earnest and exuberant. I’d always pictured him as an elven creature with a knack for expanding on simple refrains with ever more crafty arrangement and layering. Of course I had encountered the solemn ‘Seven swans’ album, but even that one touched on various musical styles and felt as if it was a collection of killer singles unified by a theme.
Carrie and Lowell goes far as a document of the damaged relationship between an unstable mother and a son looking for love, but the brilliance of the album is the way it contextualises the memories and feelings addressed. I feel like I’m looking at someone’s precious, aged family photos – spots of sunlight obscure my vision as I picture a family vacation evoked by the picked chords of ‘Eugene’. I could also be learning to swim at the communal pool. I can see the blue light of a hospital room during the album’s centrepiece ‘Fourth of July’. I truly hope no-one diminishes the song to heighten the impact of a deathbed scene in a TV series.
There is such cohesion in this music – it serves the lyrical content beautifully. All delicate guitar picking, and piano that changes like light at all times of the day and night. When the strings appear, they do not announce themselves; they spring from the ground or a passing cloud. They are insistent though; like a shadow that cannot be separated from the living.
The lyrics are monumental. The more searing emotional content conjures feelings of the Eels’ ‘Electro Shock Blues’, but Sufjan sees things from all angles. Even the anger here is considered, something that must be displayed as part of the healing process, but not something to wallow in. When I talk of learning something, I mean it – I feel I am a better person for hearing this.
If one is critical, you could complain of ‘sameness’, but on repeated listening, I hear new precious musical passages. The rapturous coda of ‘Should have known better’ is just one such moment. Sufjan finds solace in the birth of his brother’s daughter, and the finale is pure joy. Warm keyboard notes dip in with the subtle electronics heightening the feeling of spring and new beginnings. Grief and happiness are seasonal, and Sufjan has illustrated this with his exceptional melodic ability and the most sparing application of instrumentation.
In all this directness, the album also delivers one cryptic, beautiful song which stands with the collection or on its own. The enigmatic ‘Drawn to the blood’ is the best song I’ve heard this year. When Sufjan whispers out ‘head of a rabbit’ and ‘heart of a dragon’ over thumb strummed chords that appear from all places in the listener’s room, I have no doubts these words are not window dressing. Can someone provide us with unflinching honesty and yet preserve some mystery? I suppose seven albums in, Sufjan can still do so. I am grateful.