Finding Life in Death: Sufjan Stevens and the Musical Comeback of the Year

Sufjan Stevens
Courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens' new album Carrie & Lowell is about a missed opportunity. The album is titled after the 39-year-old singer-songwriter's mother and stepfather; Carrie died of stomach cancer in December 2012 after deserting her son when he was a child, and Lowell, who was married to Carrie for five years when Sufjan was growing up, now runs his label, Asthmatic Kitty. Carrie & Lowell is not about Stevens' mother's death, although songs like "Fourth of July" recount her passing in harrowing detail. It's also not about a mother's abandonment of her son -- if anything, the album does not punish Carrie, and paints the little time they spent together (mostly during a few summers spent visiting Carrie and Lowell in Oregon when Stevens was a young child) as wondrous, epochal periods in the artist's life.

Rather, Carrie & Lowell is about the feeling of losing out on something that shouldn't have to be earned, and ruminating on the memories that could have been added to those cherished seasons. Something that could have changed his life never came to fruition, and Stevens is literally haunted by the failed prospect of peace. "In a veil of great disguises, how do I live with your ghost?" he sings on "The Only Thing," staring into the void and screaming a question that will never be answered.

Listening to Carrie & Lowell, which is painful and personal and moving, makes me think about the fascinatingly mercurial nature of Stevens' career. From 2003 to 2005, Stevens moved from an unknown folkie fresh off an instrumental album about the animals of the Chinese zodiac to one of the most commanding songwriters of his generation, thanks to a trio of transformative albums (2003's Michigan, 2004's Seven Swans and 2005's Illinois) that demonstrated his ability to blow out his music to encompass entire American states and whittle it down into intimate yet no less comprehensive storytelling. Stevens' musicianship paired arresting folk melodies with sweeping instrumental movements, and while his synthesis of spirituality and the miraculous mundanity of life could often be joyful, he also made room for songs about death, despair and absurdity. By the time Illinois became Stevens' most acclaimed album yet and topped scores of 2005 best-of lists, the impossibly ambitious 30-year-old (he said he wanted to make an album for all 50 states) could have conceivably been described as a more expansive Nick Drake or more consistent Cat Stevens. His ceiling was sky-high.

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Stevens did not release another official album in the five years after Illinois, but did not slow down in the second half of the 2000's. He released an Illinois outtakes album, The Avalanche; a five-CD holiday box set titled Songs for Christmas; a symphonic project about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and collaborations with the National, Danielson, Rosie Thomas and Castanets, among many others. In August 2010, he surprise-released an experimental EP (take that, Beyonce!) called All Delighted People, which was intriguing but felt like an appetizer to something grander. Indeed, it was: following the EP release, Stevens announced that a new full-length, The Age of Adz, would be released in October 2010.

Coming one year after admitting that the 'Fifty States' project was a promotional gimmick, The Age of Adz is, more or less, a complete rejection of the sound that Stevens had crafted with Michigan, Seven Swans and Illinois. A foray into squiggly electronic music that Stevens described as being "obsessed with sensation," the album often turns Stevens' cozy vocal delivery into an unsteady yelp meant to leap over the walls of noise he constructed. There was a lot of digital meandering, over-the-top freak-outs and a 25-minute song, "Impossible Soul," seemingly designed to test patience.

Most frustratingly, Stevens sounded completely out of place in the scattered hip-hop beats and synth jamming; watching him perform these songs live, usually with a glow-in-the-dark guitar and elaborate costumes and ribbon dancers and outer space projections, made one wonder if he had simply seen too many Of Montreal shows after Illinois was released. The ambition was still there, but on Age of Adz, Stevens is trying to scale all the wrong buildings.

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So, a misstep. It was only natural! However, the album was followed by more eclectic side projects, including another Christmas box set and a score set to a slow-motion rodeo documentary. It was worth wondering if that mid-2000's run was itself an apparition, its aftermath less of a missed opportunity than a perplexity. After releasing three brilliant full-lengths in three years, why did Stevens feel the need to venture so far away from what he was doing, to the point where he slowed down his recording process to one album every five years? Was it permissible to miss an artist who was hiding in plain sight, just because he had promised so much?

Stevens revealed a lot about himself and Carrie & Lowell in this excellent Pitchfork interview, but I'm still curious as to why making a traditional folk album was the right medium for him to channel his hurt. Released a few months prior to the 10th anniversary of Illinois, Carrie & Lowell is a return to stripped-down folk music, most closely resembling the hushed reverence of Seven Swans. It's a style that is frankly jarring to hear Stevens once again operate within, but this is where he effortlessly dominates.

The album sets aside the manic vibrations of The Age of Adz and features sanded melodies, doubled vocals and not a thing obscuring Stevens' thin falsetto. The guitar chords on "Should Have Known Better" and "Eugene" crackle like the flames of a brush fire, as Stevens delves into his fragmented memories of being deserted at a video store and viewing a swim instructor who couldn't pronounce his first name as a father figure. Elsewhere, his Christianity is used to evoke confusion over his lack of support, and final song "Blue Bucket of Gold" ends with Stevens pleading, "Lord, touch me with lightning," as a cry for guidance.

In one pocket of the album, Stevens wishes he had written Carrie more letters before she died; in another, his desire to find out more about his mother is so agonizing that he contemplates suicide. There are collaborators (Laura Veirs, S. Carey, Thomas Bartlett) helping convey this complex regret, but Stevens is mostly alone on the album, feeling through a dark room and telling stories that he has stashed in his brain for decades, in the musical mode in which he made his name.

Yet Carrie & Lowell comes across not as a defeated return to a genre Stevens tried to run from, but a clear-eyed admission that Stevens needed to tell this story -- the story of his mother, of his childhood, of himself -- the right way. Carrie & Lowell is the most focused album of his career: one can detect the care given to each lyric, the album sequencing and the narrative structure of each of the 11 songs. Stevens' voice cracks in despair on Carrie & Lowell, but he also survives the album -- and, hopefully, has found some of the peace he grasps for on the songs outside of them. It took an immensely gifted artist a decade to return to the music in which he transcends, and while the circumstances are unhappy, the process of listening to his comeback is nothing less than triumphant. His words are traumatized, but his artistry is as beautiful as it ever was.