Heralded as a prominent singer-songwriter, an adept multi-instrumentalist, and introspective lyricist, Sufjan Stevens has become a household name in modern acoustic/folk music. With albums like Michigan and Illinois that placed him in the mainstream limelight, Stevens has 14 years of successful releases with a knack for experimentation.
I was introduced to Sufjan Stevens through my church in Winona last year. They played his rendition of Come Thou Font of Every Blessing from one of his multiple Christmas albums to tell the story of Robert Robinson who originally composed this song in the 1750’s. Listening to the banjo and xylophone drive this emotional hymn still gives me chills.
I began to explore his discography, but not steadily. I’ve bounced from album to album through only a couple tracks, so I’m not an expert on this guy. I can gather from what I’ve heard that Stevens dares to explore. He taps into electronica and very grandiose production on albums like The Age of Adz and The Avalanche, which is a departure from the traditional singer-songwriter material he built his career on. I think his vast exploration is what makes his music kind of inaccessible to me, because it’s hard to narrow in on a consistent sound. I can conclude Stevens dares to delve into a deep pool of musical exploration that hasn’t done much for me, but has certainly gained him a trusted following. That now brings us his 2015 release, Carrie and Lowell. If anything, this will be a new thing for me. I’m reviewing an album that I have little background on.
Carrie and Lowell takes a turn for the somber and reflective with very one dimensional (in a good way) instrumentation that is only fueled by an acoustic guitar and Steven’s raspy voice. This album is stripped down and extremely intimate. You almost get the feeling that you’re sitting across from him in a dim room with nothing more than a guitar and a comfortable chair to accompany you.
Should Have Known Better and Eugene are two of many songs that have this contrasting feel between such bright sounding melodies and such dreary lyricism. Perhaps the catchiest song on this entire record (also my favorite) with a complex composition and hollowed out background vocals, Eugene tells the story of growing up with his grandfather. Should Have Known Better is actually one of my favorite instrumentals that has this soft looping synthesizer arpeggio in the bridge. Honestly, if you turned that line up and married it with some cheer, you could probably find it on an Owl City record. It’s coupled with very personal lyrics that relay a story about his mother (keep reading to find the significance. You will find that songs about his family drive this album through a foggy night of bleakness). Fourth of July really brings the heavy atmosphere with a dose of raining production that creates this thick, hazy reverb reminiscent of indie rock outfits like Now, Now. The way that Steven’s ends this song repeating the line, “We’re all gonna die” is a very haunting passage on this album. Blue Bucket of Gold is where the album nosedives into the deep end of sadness. Rather than arpeggio picked acoustic guitar, a muzzled piano chord progression set the scene for Stevens’ melodic whisper. It’s a very somber way to end an already moody record.
Reading an interview from Pitchfork and collecting information from other reviews of this album gives me some insight about the anguish that Stevens’ is trying to put on paper and record. Most of this album is Stevens’ processing the death of his alcoholic mother who also suffered from mental illness for most of his upbringing. Delving beyond that, Stevens’ deals with a lot of estranged familial relationships with a brutally honest and nimble demeanor. I think it was refreshing to hear someone hash out situations in a civil way where it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to write a 44 minute burn book. It feels honest and underpins so many natural human emotions that anyone can relate to – particularly those who have lost someone close. Or anyone who has trudged through turbulent relationships.
As I said earlier, this album doesn’t have complexity in its production. It seems pretty deliberate so it sounds like you’re reading this letter. It’s addressed to you, for your eyes only (#jamesbondreference), and takes you on an emotional journey. The hefty synthesizers and ambient background noise in these tracks add to what the instrumentation and vocals don’t already fill.
I really wanted to like this album, but it was hard for me to get into it. Though I don’t have an issue with the songwriting or Steven’s vocals, the despondent atmosphere that this album is soaked in drips into this teary puddle that doesn’t have much replay value for me. This is not an album I can repeatedly listen to and enjoy for that reason, though there are some good songs on it. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it. I will hold onto Steven’s Christmas albums and keep this one on a back burner for when I’m feeling blue.