Sufjan Stevens’ last record, 2010’s Age of Adz, was a 75-minute bombastic space opera about love, death and cults, full of apparitions and aliens, choirs and trilling flutes. The one before that was his flawless paean to the people, places and history of the state of Illinois, produced with microscopic detail and unbridled imagination. Between those two, Stevens soundtracked his own film The BQE, in which hula-hooping wonderwomen interpreted the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through the medium of dance. Throw into the mix his pair of five-disc Christmas albums and certain things start being expected of a Sufjan Stevens long player: high-concept, obsessively researched music with an overachieving sense of hugeness and fanatical polish, meticulously composed and painstakingly produced to dazzling precision and which, occasionally, generates an all-time great album.
With that expectation in mind, then, it’s something of an eyebrow-raiser that Carrie & Lowell is none of the above – at least not on initial inspection. Written immediately after and in response to the death of Stevens’ estranged mother, Carrie, three years ago, Carrie & Lowell is a stately, brief (by Stevens’ standards) and intensely intimate album whose instrumentation is confined almost entirely to keyboards and plucked strings, with not a slither of orchestration or compositional flamboyance. The songs are inward-looking, with simple structures and straightforward time signatures, stripped bare of any fantasy or escapism. At one point Stevens confesses, “there’s blood on that blade, fuck me I’m falling apart.” The line shocks; on one level it couldn’t be further from the traditional Stevens aesthetic.
But on another, Carrie & Lowell is just as consummate, compelling and deeply rewarding as Stevens’ previous work, simply with different tools employed to achieve the same effect: where once stood giant gleaming musical totems at which one could marvel, Stevens has now carved an exquisitely delicate, ghostly diorama whose scale, albeit it the opposite direction to usual, is just as mesmerising. Equally, Stevens’ knack for creating entire parallel universes within albums – whether they be inhabited by schizophrenic space travellers or Midwestern luminaries – returns here, but instead of history books and fables, the source material is his own psyche, resulting in a set of poetically misremembered childhood experiences, fragile confessions and posthumous apologies that, although clearly personal to Stevens, are universal enough to invoke natural empathy; when he sings “I forgive you mother, I can hear you, and I long to be near you, but every road leads to an end,” on opener Death With Dignity, the candid regret, coming from an artist who so often writes from the psychologically safe distance of a documentarian, is incredibly powerful.
Records as raw as Carrie & Lowell are almost always uncomfortably bleak or disingenuously humble, and even the great examples of the genre tend to stumble at one point or other. But the genius of Carrie & Lowell is how nimble it is, emotionally – it feels like neither unvarnished exhibitionism nor miserablist emotion-dump, but merely a story of simple sadness, told with immense affection, sincerity and even notes of humour: in Eugene, Stevens tells of a swimming teacher – perhaps his stepfather Lowell – calling him “Subaru” because he couldn’t pronounce “Sufjan”. The line is sung with a sighing smile, and tiny flourishes like this alongside the subtlest of nods to Rapper’s Delight on The Only Thing release the album’s pressure at crucial points, resulting in masterful pacing.
“At their best, these songs should act as a testament to an experience that's universal,” Stevens told Pitchfork last month of his new album. “Everyone suffers; life is pain; and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence, so deal with it.” That level of bluntness does a disservice to the abundant prettiness sprinkled across the breadth of Carrie & Lowell, but as a sentiment, that honesty is also what makes his album great: for the first time in his career, Stevens has removed all the artifice and high-concept safety curtains from around his work and dealt, straight, with his own life in all its unflinching ugliness. That he’s managed to do it with such poise, hope, quiet power and affecting grace is both a musical and emotionally cathartic triumph.