Sufjan Stevens is a hard chap to pin down. Since the beloved grandeur of his Illinois record, everybody’s favourite Christian indie-folk singer-songwriter has released two lengthy Christmas collections, a multimedia project based upon the Brooklyn-Queens-Expressway and dropped a hip hop album with his surprisingly cohesive band Sisyphus. The man has shown unpredictable eccentricity making it impossible to guess his next move, however Carrie & Lowell, his seventh solo album and first in five years, represents a regression of sorts sonically while simultaneously breaking new ground thematically.
Carrie & Lowell is the sound of Stevens trying to make sense of the confused mixture of feelings he experienced surrounding the death of a mother he hardly knew, and while it sounds a bit mean to say it, the results are heartbreakingly pretty. Regularly surrounded by whimsical horns or crushing electronics, here Stevens is naked, supported by little more than nimble acoustic arpeggios and reverberated piano chords – a far cry from the digital bombast of 2010’s Age Of Adz. While there are instrumental moments of beauty aplenty such as the dancing keyboard left-turn in ‘Should Have Known Better’ or the walls of ambient noise that close several tracks, Carrie & Lowell is most definitely an album told through its poetic words rather than its sounds.
Stevens has always preferred to focus on the tales of others – look no further than the folklore of Illinois or the Christianity-celebrating hymns of Seven Swans – but here he accepts the sole focus of his songs for the first time as a way of coping with the intense grief that threatened to derail his life. Left by his Mother, Carrie, at 12 months old, these stories centre around the few memories he has of her and his unrelenting longing for a relationship that never really existed. Rather than resenting Carrie for leaving though, Stevens accepts her actions and touchingly sings of pure adoration for her as on opening track ‘Death With Dignity’ – “I forgive you mother, I can hear you and I want to be near you but every road leads to an end”. Elsewhere on ‘John My Beloved’ and ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ Stevens turns to his dependable faith to provide him with shelter from the sorrow, but it is the haunting centrepiece ‘Fourth Of July’ that packs the heaviest punch.
Stevens’ voice never rises above a breezy whisper but every other line he sings will knock you down.