If you really think about it, Sufjan Stevens has made a living for over 15 years now asking one simple question: what should I believe? On his debut, A Sun Came, belief was an overcrowded canvas, wet with word vomit and impossibly complex to navigate (much like all of our minds). For the two state albums of Michigan and Illinois, belief was shaped by facts. Personal realizations were scattered between annotations and incidents torn from state history books. For Seven Swans, belief was shaped by faith, passed down from generations past, possessed and habitualized to form an ideology and a resulting outlook. For his ample amounts of holiday music, belief is steeped in tradition, both secular and sacred, taking the best of both worlds and combining it into the most likable yet unshapely thing you can make it. With 2010's Age of Adz, Sufjan may have departed stylistically, but he returned to maybe the most familiar source of human belief: personal experience. But this experience was not Sufjan's own - rather, it was that of Prophet Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic artist who painted the Apocalypse according to his own visions, complete with spaceships and a new age to come that looked radically different than our own. And so, between the endpoints of Father Abraham and Adz, we find Sufjan Stevens wandering the plains, confronting a thousand and one beliefs and trying each of them on for size, impossible soul in hand trying to find what it is that makes all delighted people raise their hands.But after years upon years of wandering, questioning, and exploring the edge of existence, Stevens is tired. He's been burned one too many times latching onto a truth he thought he believed to own and finding out later that (to quote him here) it's nothing but chasing after something that is gone to the black of night. And so, after adventures in space, becoming the spokesperson for two states, a freeway, and Christmas, Sufjan is back in his Brooklyn office left with the same question filtered through every unsolicited "should" in the book: what do I believe? This week, Sufjan returns to his roots and takes an unapologetic inwards. The horns are gone. The synthesizers are gone. The spacey artwork has been replaced by an old photograph. These are songs from a master songwriter that has reached the end of his rope and wants an honest answer that holds some weight outside of a sales pitch. With Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan looks at the man in the mirror through the lens of the past and gives us a painstakingly honest glance into his soul ripped wide open. It's a painful journey, but it's one you can believe through and through.
Much like all of Sufjan's work, Carrie & Lowell has a thick backstory that you need to be aware of before diving in completely. While Sufjan is the obviously main character of the narrative on the record, its two supporting characters, his mother Carrie and stepfather Lowell, deserve full and proper introductions. As he explained in his excellent recent interview with Pitchfork, Sufjan and his mother only spent a handful of years together, totaling to the one year after his birth and three summers in Oregon from the age of 5 to 8, when she was briefly married to Lowell Brams. Carrie was a schizophrenic and faced a reality challenged by extensive substance abuse. Her abandonment of Sufjan and his siblings was, in light of this, both a curse and a blessing for the children. But the rest of their childhood was spent raised by Sufjan's father and stepmother in a largely loveless home. Sufjan met Lowell his first summer in Oregon with this mother at the age of 5. After three summers and a divorce, their only blood tie was severed, but despite this, Lowell sought to continue relationship with Sufjan throughout his youth. Fast forward more than thirty years, and now Lowell Brams is the director of the Asthmatic Kitty Lander office and has even released a record on the label.
All of this imagery is painted in breathtaking watercolor on the intermittent portraits throughout Carrie & Lowell. "Eugene" is a kitchen setting on an Oregon summer's day, citing a simple memory of Carrie that sticks in Sufjan's mind. It's not a complicated one (there is lemon yogurt involved), but with so few to deal with bouncing around in his head, it's one that sticks to the walls enough to lay a foundation. The album's title track does similar things, though the context of the memory is not so fond. Sufjan runs old pictures through his head while drowning grief with booze, passing out on the floor, trying to climb up on his mattress to wake up with a slightly lesser headache. Here, he could care less about reconciling the past to himself - he just wants the simplicity back. Then finally, the pictures of the past become catatonic as they blend with memories of Carrie's passing on "Fourth of July". The futility and fragility of life that makes the delicate moments like the one on "Eugene" so special is the same one that leaves you cold and alone under the fireworks. There are thousands of photographs to deal with, and somehow, Sufjan has to make sense of them all.
From "To Be Alone With You" to "Casimir Pulaski Day", we've always known love to be a strange and slightly somber thing with Sufjan Stevens, but with Carrie & Lowell, love looks stranger than ever. "Love is unconditional and incomprehensible." That's how Sufjan chooses to reconcile the hardships of his upbringing to the peace he's been starting to find in the modern day. His struggle with love's unconditional nature takes its fullest form on "All of Me Wants All of You". Here, he gets his loves conflicted between infatuation, sex, motherhood, and mutual respect, but the overarching pattern is clear. Love is unconditional even when we don't plan on it. When we love, we want with all of our being, and we get tangled in between criss-crossed desires the vast majority of the time. It's this mystery that guides the narrative on Carrie & Lowell. And truly, it must - how else can you explain 11 tracks of mourning over a mother barely known or praise of a father who bares no ounce of your own blood? According to Sufjan's hindsight, the same love that allowed Lowell the grace to give lifelong care (away from his own household) for a boy he hardly knew guided his mother to make a choice to better her children's lives by staying away from them. It's this unpleasant context in which you must approach Sufjan's newest offering. But once you allow your heart to be broken past the false beliefs of idealism, the beauty underneath is unquestionably without flaw.
Naturally, the first thing that Sufjan does in wake of this tidal wave of a backdrop is question what he does believe. "John My Beloved" takes a prodigal son approach to the loved disciple, asking the extent of that love offered even when he feels like he's squandered its worth. On "Drawn To The Blood", Sufjan asks who is to blame, making use of extensive Old Testament covenant imagery to try and find where the deal was broken off. "My prayer has always been love... what did I do to deserve this?" Sufjan asks. It's a question that he gives a stark present tense to on "No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross" - one that almost gives a straight answer to the question of belief that he's asked so many times before in his music. This track finds Sufjan at the absolute bottom. Damned by his own standard and disheartened from any step forward, Sufjan begs for grace and mercy and finds none. He's lost his direction and finds that no comfort comes paired with belief - there's no shade in the shadow of a promise misinterpreted. Perhaps this is what Sufjan Stevens has learned most of all through this life journey: belief without action or response is empty air. On "The Only Reason", he remarks, "Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb, signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark, blind faith, God's grace - nothing else left to impart". All of these promises a shot in the dark, Sufjan realizes that the writing on the wall without true revelation is a hoax - it might as well be the gospel of Prophet Royal Robertson. Rather, we must take what belief we do have, accompany it with our unique personal experience, and find a way to use it to make the world a more beautiful place in absence of loved ones lost.
In light of this, Sufjan chooses to find overwhelming beauty in not-so-obvious places. On "Should Have Known Better", he sings "My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings - illumination". At first glance, this lyric seems commonplace. But given the context in which it's approached - the upbringing of Sufjan and his siblings, their resulting views on parenthood, Sufjan's own looming feelings of loneliness and contempt - it becomes an early pinnacle on the record and a testament to new perspective. In fact, it becomes one much sweeter upon second listen of the record. After you've had a chance to soak in the heaviness of the record's offering to the listener on "Blue Bucket of Gold", returning to "Should Have Known Better" might give you an idea of your own of how to give personal brokenness as a blood offering to bring about joy. The story of Carrie & Lowell is not a happy one, but only the most oblivious would be naive enough to think that it is an entirely unique one. Sufjan's world is ugly, but so is yours and so is mine. We each have an opportunity to dig through the old photos of simpler times and reconcile them to the present and find "The Only Reason" for ourselves, whatever it may be.
Carrie & Lowell is out this week on Asthmatic Kitty. Sufjan will tour in support of the record. You can catch him two nights in June at the Paramount Theater, with support from long-time Asthmatic Kitty faithful Helado Negro. June 10 is sold out, but you can get tickets for the next night, June 11, right here.
Today’s song, featured on The Afternoon Show with Kevin Cole, is “Tonya Harding (in Eb Major)” by Sufjan Stevens, a single which is available via Asthmatic Kitty Records.
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