Thankfully with his seventh "official" album "Carrie and Lowell" one of America's greatest singer songwriters returns to peak form. Sufjan Stevens has recorded an album, which is about coming to terms with love, loss, regret and a son yearning for a mother he never really knew. It is a record about bereavement, the randomness of life and will deeply resonate with anyone who knows the difficulty of closure and the search for hope. As subject matters go it is not the usual warp and weft of popular music but Stevens is not the usual pop artist. "Carrie and Lowell" comes fully formed as a 10 song suite of beauty and meditation. In his fascinating recent interview with Uncut, Stevens also stressed an important caveat. As he stated "I'm not exploiting my misery- if that's how it seems I have failed as an artist".
The album sees Stevens returning to that crystalline wintry indie folk of the "Seven Swans" era. It starts with "Death in dignity" a lilting gorgeous lament where he reflects "Spirit of my silence I can hear you/But I'm afraid to be near you". It is followed by "Should have known better" which must rank as one of his greatest songs. It tells the tale of an incident when his mentally troubled and alcoholic mother abandoned her four-year old boy in a video store. It builds from acoustic beauty to a repeat chorus so beloved of his approach on "Illinoise". In effect both these two opening songs set the template for the album with prospective reviewers scrambling for new words to describe the utter loveliness but also the hurt contained herein.
Perhaps the most "upbeat" song is ironically entitled "Drawn to blood" full of religious imagery and biblical allusion. It is the "Fourth of July" however, which stops the listener in their tracks. Underpinned by repeating percussive keyboard cycles it is the albums most beautiful song cut from the same mould as the "Owl and Tanager". Here he questions those childhood angelic perceptions of parents as sits next to his mothers deceased body. "Sitting at the with the halo at you head/Was it all a disguise like junior high?/Where everything was fiction, future and predication/Now where am I? My fading supply" He repeats the words "we're all gonna die" until the song dwindles to silence. The remaining tracks are all first class including the bitter sweet "The only thing" and the stunning hymn like "No shade in the shadow of the cross". Here Stevens references his own personal demons including the devastating line "There's blood on that blade/F*** me, I'm falling apart/ My assassin, like Casper the ghost/There's no shade in the shadow of the cross".
The past few years have been frustrating for those who subscribe to the view that Sufjan Stevens is the most unique and original musician "treading the boards" in modern music. The multifarious bleeps, electronica and 25 minute mini symphonies of 2010's "Age of Adz" marked an album of incredible highs combined with the sound of failed experimentation, while last years self-indulgent Sisyphus collaboration was a huge misstep. In "Carrie and Lowell" he is back to his best with an album of exquisite beauty. It is a deeply personal and brilliant record and will deeply resonate if the pain of grief has touched you. Ultimately his key theme is to dedicate his songs to those we love yet who elude us.
Review by Red on Black