When introducing any piece of work Sufjan Stevens releases, it is impossible not to delve into his rich history, as it plays such a crucial role in his songwriting. Sufjan Stevens is a master singer-songwriter that has been an active icon in American indie-folk since 2000 when he released his debut album, A Sun Came, on Asthmatic Kitty, a music label he co-founded with his stepfather. A Sun Came achieved critical praise for being diverse and global, utilizing traditional instruments, electronica and poetic lyricism.
He released subsequent albums dealing with intensely personal subject matter, like his views about God and a whole album dedicated to his home state, Michigan. He is known for creating eclectic, but personal songs, where he plays most, if not all, of the instruments.
He was raised by his father and stepmother, occasionally visiting his mother, Carrie and stepfather Lowell Brams (*hint). Brams was a great supporter of Stevens’ music, even serving as the head of his record label, Asthmatic Kitty. Stevens’ attended various schools, including Harbor Light Christian School.
Although he does not identify himself as a Christian artist, he regularly explores themes about the nature of God. He makes it obvious that he thoroughly enjoys time spent with God (on the album Seven Swans, a deeply religious album), but also that he realizes the suffering that the Cross brings to those that accept it (“No shade in the shadow of the cross” is the first single from Carrie & Lowell). He as also written many Christmas albums including hymns and carols that he composed. He refuses to speak on theological themes during interviews, saying “certain themes and convictions are meant for personal conversation”.
The Fifty States Project
Stevens set out on a mission to create an album for each of the fifty U.S. states. He started with his home state, Michigan, and followed it with his most famous album to date, Illinois. He admitted that he never intended to complete his mission, feeling he achieved what he set out to do, which is to tell the stories of real American people. Illinois told raw, but complex stories about people and events in the state, including reported UFO sightings, rumors of a serial killer, stories of Abraham Lincoln, etc. Illinois won best album of 2005 on various occasions and received the highest Metacritic score of 2005.
The Summit of Sufjan Stevens
Although Illinois is widely regarded as his best work yet and some believe that all subsequent albums, although interesting and engaging, serve only as a canvas for his endeavors into electronica, Carrie & Lowell puts those beliefs to rest by coming full circle and returning Stevens to his most comfortable position, behind a guitar, telling a story.
The album is the most restrained he has been since Seven Swans, which is also the biggest reference point for the content of the album. It consist mainly of two layered tracks of guitar picking, his multilayered poetic vocals and other synth-like vocals that sound like a circle of carolers quietly singing hymns at the back of an echoing cathedral.
Carrie & Lowell achieves so much with so little, showcasing the experience he has attained through his years of experimentation with synthesizers and loop pedals, but in a stripped down, subdued and almost mechanical manner. The unassuming tone of the tracks on the album make space for the lyrics to catch the listener’s attention. There is no distracting beat or catchy hook, but rather simple and beautiful melodies.
The subject matter is a concentrated retelling of his relationship with Carrie, his mother, who died of substance abuse, most likely as a result of her schizophrenia and depression. Stevens insists that the album is not an art piece like many of his other creations, but rather an autobiographical showcase of his life. His inner artist betrays his best intentions, though, when he uses images from Greek mythology to recall memories of suicidal thoughts as a means to handle the immense weight of his mother’s influence on him. On “John My Beloved” he addresses Jesus and discusses death as the ultimate end versus the mysterious idea of the afterlife.
Carrie & Lowell is an introspective album at heart that is brimming with comparisons. This shows both how conflicted the songwriter is in his ideas on God vs death, hope vs grief, etc. but also how he can sing about these themes with the maturity of someone that recalls vivid memories without feeling that he is still living them. He sings about being mocked about his pursuit of faith, but then insists “Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me”. Sufjan Stevens has truly mastered the art of the lamenting songwriter telling personal and devastating stories with utter conviction.
Carrie & Lowell succeeded in both concept and execution, being both shockingly simple and impossibly intricate and leaving so much more to decode if you put the album on infinite repeat.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty, 2015)