When Sufjan Stevens emerged into the indie consciousness in the early ’00s, he had his best album — 2003’s Michigan — tucked under his arm. The record was earnest, pseudo-political, and weirdly beautiful — a trifecta of modern folk’s attributes if there ever was one. As far as folk’s historical purpose was concerned, Stevens’ ambitious states project hovered near perfect: what speaks more to who people are than the strife they see at home?
Sufjan Stevens has never exactly been traditional, however, even if elements of his work are more traditional than his peers’. To follow up Michigan, he zeroed in on his Christian faith for 2004’s Seven Swans — and somehow didn’t lose any listeners in the secular world of indie rock. The critics praised him more, perhaps because Seven Swans was even more stripped down in sound and personal in nature than its predecessor. Imagine if more than half of Stevens’ listeners understood the Biblical references or the Flannery O’Connor nod tucked inside the album’s lo-fi beauty.
Up until now, Seven Swans has stood as the authentic peak of Sufjan Stevens’ career. After one more admirable crack at the state project (2005’s Illinois), Stevens devolved into a never-ending string of Christmas covers and even more ambitious projects that turned a critical eye to geography (2009’s The BQE film and soundtrack). By 2010’s The Age of Adz, Stevens’ vision had been swallowed whole by the electronic experimentation that marked his unfortunate first two albums, 2000’s A Sun Came and 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit. It was hard to imagine him going back to acoustic strumming accompanied by his own comforting voice and perhaps a banjo, piano, or oboe. (God bless Sufjan for making the oboe cool.)
But with his new album Carrie and Lowell, out this week, that’s exactly what Sufjan does. It’s his most personal album yet, matching the candid devastation of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, or any entry from Elliott Smith’s discography. Stevens has always been personal by default because he employs vivid detail in his stories. He may be talking about those living along the poverty line in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when he sings, “I live in America with a pair of Payless shoes,” but that was something that reflects his own experience growing up in Petoskey, just south of the Upper Peninsula. To sing about Christianity is among the most universal experiences of the Western world, but the way Stevens does it places the focus on the more intimate parts of faith. Yet in some ways, we’ve never really seen Sufjan straight on, rather than through the lens of another topic. Carrie and Lowell fills that void.
The story behind Carrie and Lowell is well known by now: Stevens’ mother, Carrie, left his family when he was just a year old, and remained a sporadic presence in his life until her death from stomach cancer in late 2012. It was between the ages of 5 and 8 that Stevens had the most consistent contact with Carrie, who suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and drug addiction. At the time, Carrie resided in Oregon and was married to Lowell Brams, who now runs Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label.
The lighter parts of the album (“Eugene,” the title track) focus on Stevens’ childhood memories spent around his mother. At his most nostalgic, Sufjan jokes about the man who taught him to swim calling him Subaru. But really, this is a respite from the existential and familial despair that defines Carrie and Lowell. Stevens watches his mother die and wrestles not only with the fact that he never had enough time with her, but also that some of her flaws exist within himself. This results in suicidal thoughts, plainly and beautifully chronicled in “The Only Thing.” This is an album that finds a certain comfort in repeating the words, “We’re all gonna die,” until that reality finally sets in. As if anyone could ever understand death until we’re personally staring it down.
Carrie and Lowell will undoubtedly end up on the year-end lists of people who crave sad or introspective music, but it won’t be because Stevens focused on the most universal topics that exist: mortality and family. The specific circumstances surrounding the album are unique, and it’s Stevens’ total honesty that allows the listener to understand his experiences and find empathy within them. Without his commitment to a warts-and-all approach, Carrie and Lowell wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. Albums about death are inherently albums about life, and Sufjan Stevens finally told the story of his own.