Song of the Day: Sufjan Stevens - Should Have Known Better

Song of the Day
04/20/2015
Gerrit Feenstra

Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Today’s selection, featured on the Midday Show with Cheryl Waters, is "Should Have Known Better" by Sufjan Stevens from the 2015 album Carrie & Lowell on Asthmatic Kitty.Sufjan Stevens - Should Have Known Better (MP3)Sufjan Stevens made his return earlier this year with Carrie & Lowell, an album that makes a return in more than one respect. First and most immediately noticeable, Sufjan lets go of the psychedelic electronic freakout he showed us on The BQE and Age of Adz and returns to the quiet, breathy folk wonders of projects like Seven Swans and the quieter bits and pieces of Illinois and Michigan. In fact, Carrie & Lowell may be the most stripped down record that Stevens has ever put together, even more so than his entirely recorded to four track debut A Sun Came. Second, Stevens is returning home, emotionally. This time around, he isn't looking to state history or apocalyptic cult prophecy for inspiration - rather, he's looking into the mirror and back into the past to deal with some demons. The result of this process is painful at times, but Carrie & Lowell shows that the man that comes out the other end of this dark tunnel is a more vulnerable and more fulfilled creature. Stevens' latest opus peels back all the layers and lays bare this songwriter's soul for all to see, and it's an incredible, visceral endeavor.

Both of the record's "single" offerings showcase Stevens juxtaposing doubt and self-assured beauty. Where "No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross" doubts blind faith and the Ophelia approach to the world in search of true belief, "Should Have Known Better" doubts the lessons learned through childhood in search of adult wholeness. The song is a masterpiece in two halves. In the first, Stevens flips back through his memories of his mother, his beliefs, and his feelings in light of his "black shroud", the looming self-doubt that made him so keen on looking elsewhere for a remedy amidst uncertainty. In the second half, Stevens is an adult, his mother now passed away, looking around for a sign that he hasn't squandered opportunity for true faith and doing good in his independence. He comes to terms with the fact that the past is gone, but that there is beauty all around us, and that beauty is what allows us to love without selfishness.

In classic Sufjan Stevens form, "Should Have Known Better" challenges us to look inward, asking the same hard (near impossible) questions that Stevens asks himself so frequently. When will we stop wasting energy on regret and instead use it to soak up beauty and share it with those who are in short supply? The song is one of the most complex on the record in terms of arrangement (being that most of the others on Carrie & Lowell only host Stevens, his guitar, and the quiet hum of the air conditioner). The second half of the track features a lush string arrangement and quiet, warm vocal harmonies. The song is an anchor in a sea of questions on Carrie & Lowell and serves equal parts as a modal point and a great introduction. If you haven't taken the dive on Sufjan Stevens' latest, this is the perfect place to start.

Sufjan Stevens is now on tour in support of the record, and you can catch him in Seattle at the Paramount Theatre on June 10 and 11. Tickets are still available for the June 11 show here. Find other dates and more music on his website. For now, check out "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross", another song from the new album:

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