Sufjan Stevens left behind the folk game a long time ago, declaring his plan to write fifty records for fifty states a mere joke -- a sentiment that failed to wash away the beauty of the ornately composed Michigan and the pantomimic Illinoise. In the years since, he's been writing song cycles dedicated to the solar system, conducting orchestras in tributes to American highways, making fun of people on his blog and releasing records that betray deep existential crises -- All Delighted People and the synth-mad Age of Adz. He returns now with Carrie & Lowell, a record which promises a retracing of footsteps, back to the days when Stevens was about acoustic guitars, banjos and soft sadness. It's dedicated to his mum and step-dad. Argh. Crying.
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Sufjan Stevens has always been a solo artist, but he has never made a solo album. With American states as his muse and orchestras of the Danielson Famile as his sidekicks, he has never had a musical private life. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, he addressed the juxtaposition: “some people have observed [that] about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic”. If his way of communicating personal truths until now has been to disguise them in glorious noise, then it’s no wonder that ‘Carrie & Lowell’ -- a self-made record written in response to his mother’s death -- is a devastating, horrifying listen. It’s the sound of nothing but Sufjan.
Still, Sufjan’s solo album isn’t your average singer-songwriter’s solo album. Unlike Elliott Smith, who this record seems to reference as its closest companion (take the morose strums of “Drawn to the Blood”), it reaches for supplementary voices, different perspectives. On most of these songs, Sufjan’s voice is accompanied by a familiar friend: itself. It’s layered and overdubbed as if he’s trying to engage with his past lives, to draw himself into childhood; on “Death With Dignity”, his vocal echoes outward in quiet breaths, aligning this moment in time with the time he spent with his family as a child. On “Eugene”, his unabashed high pitch combines with his tales of maternal distance -- “I just wanted to be near you” -- reducing him to nothing more than his young self.
It might sound sparser than ‘The Age of Adz’, Sufjan’s previous existential meltdown, but 'Carrie' isn't a folk record. It’s not about sparsity or reduction; Sufjan will always be an additive songwriter, and here he constantly renews his strums with synth, banjo, anything that reveals extra detail. Those little whispers and hoots on “Should’ve Known Better” sound like ghosts coming out of woodwork. And did I mention the drones? Yeah: Sufjan might yet make a synth drone record. As if suggesting that he’ll never quite make peace with his past, these songs rarely reach a natural cadence, instead devoting their last minutes to anxiously sustained ambience that stifles and broods. Another thirty minutes of material and he could be the latest member of the Students of Decay family, but these moments are all the more special for their brevity: on “Drawn to the Blood” and “Blue Bucket of Gold”, they suggest an ambiguity, a lack of the catharsis that many singer-songwriters reach for in their work.
This may as well be Sufjan’s debut album, for all that it tells us about him. Have we ever gotten this close to the real him? 'Seven Swans' comes closest, but remains an intangible religious fantasy; ‘Illinois’ and ‘Michigan’ were shrouded in history and allegory, state policy and local nature. On hearing ‘Carrie & Lowell’, though, old songs like “Romulus” are revealed as heart-breaking memoir; “Casimir Pulaski Day” suddenly feels less abstract, and even more devastating. It’s rare that a record can be so good it makes the ones before it shine in hindsight. ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is a career best.
10/10 John Lewis Customer review, 14th September 2015
Album of the year? It's gotta be. Album of the decade? Quite possibly. Album of the century?Well there's a long way to go but it'll take some beating. Suntan's latest opus, in memory of his parents, is the Pet Sounds of our generation. Seeing him perform this album live, with extended interludes, even greater delicacy and intensity and the pure passion of the whole band was like watching Dennis Wilson perform his masterpiece or Pink Floyd playing Dark Side of the Moon or Nick Drake playing Pink Moon. The music on this album - the mood, the melody, the arrangements, the lyrics; it's actual perfection in any art form. The lyrics are reflective, evocative of youth and happy memories, the melodies and playing are seminally beautiful, the arrangement uplifting and infiltrate your senses like a fine perfume or an exquisite meal.
Buy it, hear it, see it live. Whether you love Taylor Swift, Lucy Rose, The Maccabees or U2, you gotta love this album.
10/10 Spads Customer review, 23rd April 2015
I avoided the temptation to stream this online and waited til I picked up my clear, sexy vinyl copy from Norman. The computer, phone and telly were switched off - I wanted to do this old school, and browsed the album artwork and lyrics as I soaked up the music. Half-way through track 1 and I was already roaring my bloody eyes out. This album is intense! I cried pretty much all the way through. I gave it another listen later and balled all over again. At this point I thought "I will never be able to listen to this on the bus." Turns out my period was due, and that had a lot to do with the overwhelming emotion, but the music definitely played a part too.
Sufjan makes me cry, in a good way.
10/10 Markybod Customer review, 7th April 2015
Full marks for Sufjan.
A lot gets said about the raw honesty of Sufjan Steven's lyrics and no album yet has come as close to the heart of the man than this his latest, Carrie & Lowell. Some will make you wince a bit, some will make you smile with recognition but all will make you feel.
The songs. The songs are sequenced perfectly and have a nice ebb and flow to them. Opener "Death With Dignity" leads us off with a stark message that 'every road leads to an end' but delivered in such a comforting way. It is the start of side B before he delivers his masterpiece . "The Only Thing" will undoubtedly go down as one his greatest songs. It is up there with "Romulus" and "John Wayne Gacy Jr" in my eyes. Read the previous reviewers comments around the closing lyrics. I feel exactly the same.
Whilst this is a return to the form of the Seven Swans era Sufjan this is not delivered on banjo and guitar as so much of that album was. You can hear through the choice of atmospheric keyboards that he has learned loads on his journey to the album. So. why does it still feel so folky? That there is the genius of the man.
Hit buy and thank me later.
10/10 Penrith Steve Customer review, 28th March 2015
After losing track of Sufjan Steven's career a little bit, nothing after "Illinoise" really grabbed my ears, I'd heard whispers that "Carrie & Lowell" was a return to form, or a return to his "Michigan" heyday. As it turns out this unbelievable album has surpassed all that came before it. The melodies are beautiful and the the lyrics can be heartbreaking. Whilst every track is genuinely brilliant there are some that shine especially bright, "The Only Thing" is the best of the bunch. After offering to tear most of his body apart, the closing line "Should I tear my heart out now? Everything returns to you somehow" leaves me in a heap on the floor. The vocal arrangement on the title track is stunning. This album sparkles - probably not the right adjective - it's stark yet lush, it's poetic, it plays with your emotions like properly good music should. It's absolutely brilliant.
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