Sufjan Stevens has an MFA, which goes a long way toward explaining his conceptual leanings. From his abandoned 50 states project — one album for each state — to a multimedia piece entirely about a freeway, his work, even at its most mellifluous, tends toward the artful.
His latest, Carrie & Lowell, is no exception. Named after his stepdad and mother, the album was inspired by Stevens’ grief after the latter died from stomach cancer. Isolated from the rest of his discography, it’s a decent, if unremarkable, collection of hushed indie-folk, and the most immediate music Stevens has released in years.
In the context of that discography, however, it scans as yet another highfalutin “project,” one full of painfully oblique lyrics that distract from the album’s ostensible subject. There are rare moments where he manages to express the ineffability of anguish through music, such as the shimmering crescendo in “The Only Thing,” but too often he squanders those with dubious references to such “signifiers” as Greek myths. Leave it to Stevens to make an album about grieving an “album about grieving.”