We don’t know who Sufjan Stevens is. Some have claimed him as this generation’s greatest folk artist, a master of Americana orchestration and literary construction – but they were foiled by the glittery psychedelia and opaque personal deconstruction of Age of Adz. Others have claimed him as a poster child for post-modern contemporary Christian, bound not to worship summits, upheld by waving hands, but rather lost in the mystical wilderness and buoyed by the sincerity found in earnest contemplation—but they too have found cause for pause at the mention of aimless drug use or nebulous sexual experience. In truth, neither camp is entirely incorrect. It’s merely that Sufjan Stevens—the poet, the believer, the artist, and, more importantly, the human being—is not yet done exploring the inherent complexity of what makes him any of these things. With his newest release, Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan has chosen to offer the most intimate and, in turn, devastating glimpse into who he is and what made him into this mysterious musician that has so captivated audiences both secular and spiritual.
From the lush and lovely compositions of Michigan to the boisterous and frantic explosions of Age of Adz, it is time to accept that if there is any definitive sound to Sufjan Steven’s music it is to be found in the whispered fragility of his words. While there are elements of past releases to be found in the music of Carrie and Lowell, from Sufjan’s quiet command of the piano to the stacked harmonic vocals, Sufjan shows no interest in revisiting a set style. Instead of raising a sense of elation with woodwind and horn sections, Carrie and Lowell wraps the listener in deceptively simple arrangements that purposefully echo his sentiments, leading the listener not in meditation of historical figures or fantastical Biblical tales, but rather directly, intimately, and again, devastatingly to simply sit with Sufjan in his pain.
But do not be mistaken: this is no simple ‘woe is me’ record, concerned with a broken
heart or a thwarted dream. No, this is a record of deep personal, existential, and impossible pain. Although he has mentioned in passing the nature of his relationship with his mother and his experience of her abandonment, never before has he been so clear as to its nature. A paranoid schizophrenic with substance abuse issues, Sufjan’s mother left her children with their father when he was only 4 years old. After a lifetime of only occasional visits and fleeting glances, we are now shown that Sufjan Stevens is bound in the contemplation of a veil of relational and mental concerns. But this record is not simply about a distant mother; it is about her irrevocable death.
This is an album about the ways in which death ends a conversation, the ways in which it shows no concern for loose ends, no mercy for wounds unhealed. There are no victories in this album, no great revelations about their relationship uncovered; there is only a broken and humbled human conceding the viciousness of finality. This is not to be mistaken for nihilism but rather accepted for its realism. Sufjan Stevens is not shy about inviting us in as he works out the fact that he will never be able to know his mother deeper than he does and the realization that this very well might apply to other aspects of his life, as well.
On “Fourth of July” we find Sufjan by his dying mother’s side, the only one present, in fact, at her death. For an artist largely known for such a wide breadth of reference, it is disarming to experience a song where he speaks only in esoteric allusions—mostly pet names and small, unknown shared moments, much like the one recounted by her side. It is a beautiful song, with a sweeping and echoed piano line, repeated over and over again as if to recall Sufjan’s own train of thoughts in the face of utter loss. By the end, we are offered a mantra, one that seemingly must have wrapped itself around Sufjan at the time: “We’re all gonna die.”
Fret not; this album is not completely void of hope. On “Should Have Known Better,” Sufjan takes comfort in the fact that although his mother abandoned him and his siblings, there is new joy to be found in his niece, the hope of a family able to move on and grow. But, in order to grow, Sufjan nonetheless knows that he must come to terms with that which has died. He explores the brief times where his mother was actually around with strained nostalgia (“Eugene,” “Carrie & Lowell”) and wrestles with the emotional and hereditary baggage left behind (“All of Me Wants All of You,” “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”). I would argue that the most emotionally cathartic moments, however, come from the most spiritually focused songs.
On “Drawn to the Blood,” Sufjan invokes the ‘God of Elijah’ with pained and worried supplication – “my prayer has always been Love – what did I do to deserve this? How did this happen?” Elijah is known, in part, as a prophet who wrestled with extreme doubt, running out and into the mountains begging God to guide him aright when he understands seemingly nothing of God’s will. In the face of such a tragic and terrible death, it is understandable that Sufjan too would struggle with such doubt. But then when we come to the track “John the Beloved,” we find Sufjan at his wits’ end praying not for understanding but for mercy. “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head,” Sufjan pleads, recognizing an agonizing and necessary truth about the whole matter, “There’s only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking, I’m dead.”
And this, more than any lingering desire to be with his mother for just a moment more, seems to be the purpose of Sufjan’s record. It is not to hesitate in the face of death but to greet it, to sit with its company and understand that even in its silence it has something to say. Recognizing the shadow of himself is not meant to represent the hopelessness of Sufjan’s loss but rather meditate on what death brings. In Christianity, the death of one’s self is the beginning of true life. In praying to Jesus for protection from the past, Sufjan is not asking for control but rather acceptance. His mother has passed, and with her, so have years of pain and confusion. But Sufjan, like the rest of us, has been dying for years, and with Carrie and Lowell Sufjan shares with us his painful but ultimately fruitful recognition that even though death ends conversations, life is always speaking. And, like Elijah, we do not need to wait for storm to stir our souls but rather sit in patience for the whisper to draw us nearer.
So, who is Sufjan Stevens? I believe it is telling to consider the character of Lowell—Sufjan’s stepfather—in this whole matter. For a brief moment, he was married to Carrie and provided a sort of stability in Sufjan’s relationship with his mother. Although long divorced, Lowell remained close with Sufjan and, amazingly, even co-founded Sufjan’s personal record label, Asthmatic Kitty. It is fitting for Sufjan to have included him in this brilliant and disarming meditation on his mother’s passing because it reveals to us something else about Sufjan Stevens: Although he might be the broken but hopeful child of an impossible neglect, he is a singularly focused student of the spirit, contemplating and honoring any and all truth, beauty, or love that might be found in the moments where there are seemingly none.
WATCH: “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” from Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell.