Anthony Carew, Ed#481, April 2015
I don’t know where to begin, Sufjan Stevens sings in ‘Death with Dignity’, the opening song on Carrie & Lowell. The 39-year-old polymath pauses because of the enormity of the subject his seventh studio LP is tackling. It’s another singular thematic study from the ambitious composer, who once promised to make an album for all 50 US states.
But where Stevens has previously penned whimsical concept records about the Chinese Zodiac (Enjoy Your Rabbit; 2001), a New York expressway (The BQE; 2009), and schizophrenic outsider-artist Royal Robertson (The Age of Adz; 2010), Carrie & Lowell lands much closer to home, and cuts closer to the bone. It’s about the life and death of his estranged, troubled mother; its title honouring both her and his stepfather, Lowell Brams, who now runs Stevens’ record label, Asthmatic Kitty.
What is that song you sing for the dead? Stevens wonders later in ‘Death with Dignity’, still unsure of himself. But across 11 songs for the dead, he rises to the occasion. And never more so than on the haunted centrepiece ‘Fourth of July’, a spectral hymn-like track, the eerie ambience of which slowly gathers as the lyrics chronicle the surreal moment of death (Such a funny thought/ to wrap you up in cloth) before simultaneously personalising and universalising the moment with the repeated refrain We’re all gonna die. Rather than peddling maudlin mourning or canonising the departed, Stevens – throughout a suite united in its stripped-down sound of fingerpicked guitar and banjo flecked with atmospheric touches of voice, keyboard and noise – digs deep into memory.
His lyrics are filled with details that are evocative, pained and wry. In ‘Eugene’ he stitches together memories of clinging to his mother’s shirt as both anxious child and grief-struck adult, and recalls intimate times: childhood summers and adult hospital-bedside stays. These memories aren’t always fond: When I was three/ three-maybe-four/ she left us at that video store, Stevens winces in ‘Should Have Known Better’; I wonder did you love me at all?
he confesses in ‘The Only Thing’.
In making this album as therapy, Stevens is committed to righteous truth, unafraid of painting an unvarnished portrait of either his subject or himself.
»Anthony Carew is a regular contributor to The Big Issue.
This article appeared in Ed#481 of The Big Issue magazine.