The announcement of Sufjan Stevens’ new record probably hasn’t excited all of the fans that the Detroit native, banjo-plucking serenader lost in the last few years. His acoustic, folk style took a sharp 180 and because of this weird experimental direction with computers and other inorganic songwriting methods, his fan base suffered tremendously. However, similar to the turnaround Sam Beam presented recently, the Sufjan announcement did indicate that he’d go back to the sound and style that initially floored us. Living up to the hype, the result is a masterpiece.
Sufjan’s seventh full-length release is dedicated to his stepfather Lowell – the head of his record label Asthmatic Kitty – and his mother Carrie who recently passed away. He was raised by his father Rasjid and stepmother, but only visited Carrie and Lowell sporadically. Sufjan reflects feelings of abandonment during his early childhood when he sings “she left us at that video store. Be my rest, be my fantasy.”
Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan’s second release in the last ten years, but these last five were well worth the wait. The very first note of the record skyrockets us, as if we’re dancing in the clouds along the neck of Sufjan’s banjo. He sings, “Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you”, mourning the recent passing of his mother Carrie. Strictly with banjo, guitar, keyboard and vocal tracks, Death With Dignity sets the bar for the rest of the album as a thorough collection of organic folk roots. The song ends with melancholy, a capella vocal harmonies that attempt to recreate the drained energy of his mother’s funeral ceremony.
Although it presented the first sign of his acoustic return, the first single, No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross, may have turned off Sufjan supporters because the song contains suicidal lyrics like driving “a stake through the centre of my heart.” However, the second single, Should Have Known Better, makes listeners realise that they should’ve known better than to doubt him. Although he continues the sad theme of death, confessing that he “should’ve wrote a letter and grieve what (he) happened to grieve,” the music is captivating as the guitar and banjo drive the song in genius harmony. At the end of the song the keyboard surfaces on top of these instruments and listeners find themselves nodding along happily until the tune ends.
It’s evident that Sufjan incorporated some of the experimental studio effects from the rubbish that was Age of Adz onto his latest release. However, on Drawn To The Blood from this latest album, these embellishments are very fitting and in fact enjoyable. The song is dominated by a guitar and vocal track and then an eerie keyboard effect appears at the one minute mark. Two minutes into the song, the music transitions to a solo of high pitched chimes and for the rest of the song listeners enter a beautifully orchestrated symphony of studio sounds.
With very little percussion on the album, Sufjan gives fans enough rhythm in the strumming of his instruments to capture their interest. After all, less is more, which is definitely the case for many indie folk artists who leave fans begging for a comeback record after a huge misstep. Carrie & Lowell proves that Sufjan’s true songwriting craft has not been blurred by pressure to make revolutionary changes from album to album. In the song Eugene, Sufjan questions, “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you,” reveling his existential battles and writer’s block. Now do you understand why this album took five years to release?
Scott J. Herman