Reflections on the death of ones mom might in other hands have made something grim and mawkish, but from grief Stevens operated sungs of beauty and wonder
Sufjan Stevens used to obscure his life story, offering clues to his listeners, then leading them down dead ends. I remember seeing him more than a decade ago at Dingwalls in London, playing songs from Michigan and Seven Swans, introducing each of them with funny, moving little narratives about the events that had inspired them. A year or two afterward, I ensure him playing many of the same sungs, and again telling funny, moving, little narratives about the events that had inspired them. Entirely different funny, moving, little narratives. Im prone to stimulating my life, their own families, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often its not fair to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest, he said earlier this year of his yarn-weaving.
On his seventh proper album, Stevens trenched the artifice, stripping himself bare, and paring back his music further than he had since Seven Swans in 2004. Carrie& Lowell was his commemoration for his mother, who died in 2012. But it wasnt a simple tribute. It was a complex and dark record: Carrie had left her family when Stevens was a year old, and most of his linked with her thereafter came where reference is and his siblings would attain summertime visits to her in Oregon, where she lived with her second husband Lowell. She suffered from both schizophrenia and depression, and was an alcoholic, and so Stevenss memories of her on Carrie& Lowell are not the uncomplicated ones of days out, of being cuddled, of being made to feel secure.
When I was three, perhaps four/ She left us at the video store, he sings on Should Have Known Better; Eugene has him repeating at the end of his poem his need to be near you; on Fourth of July, devastatingly, he imagines himself as his mother: Did you get enough love, my little dove/ Why do you exclaim?/ And Im sorry I left, but it was for the best/ Though it never felt right. Its a necessity, then, that all this is prefaced by Stevens granting absolution during the opening song, Death With Dignity: I forgive you, mom, I can hear you/ And I long to be near you. As he told Pitchfork, heartbreakingly: It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us.
Even when he is not singing about his mother, Stevens doesnt offer relief. All of Me Wants All of You assures a relationship falling apart, but in the most grimly mundane manner, without drama or heartbreak: You checked your texts while I masturbated/ Manelich, I feel so used.
But Carrie& Lowell isnt a depressing record, thats the curious thing. Its grief is soothe and reflective, rather than raging or desperate. Stevenss voice, a gentle wisp of a thing, flutterings the words in front of you before gently tugging them away as he ascends into a falsetto. The instrumentation is largely acoustic its often merely that frail voice and a fingerpicked string instrument( I wont say guitar, because though it sometimes is a guitar, it often clearly isnt ). Everything is muted; the piano on John the Beloved is so subdued that at first its scarcely recognisable as a piano( Thomas Bartlett, who plays in the Irish-American folk supergroup the Gloaming, and who has recorded as Doveman, is credited as one of the musicians on Carrie& Lowell, and John the Beloved, including with regard to, shares its mood with Dovemans sparse and beautiful reimagining of the soundtrack to Footloose, another album inspired by death ).
When I reviewed this album on its release, I called it a delight in every way. Stevenss label, Asthmatic Kitty, posted the review on its Facebook page, observing: By delight he must mean crying all the time. Well , no. Carrie& Lowell might be sad, it might be the work of a man in pain, but it is too beautiful to cause heartache. Grief and depression can result in music that can be cruel, even as it is beautiful there are moments on Big Superstars third record that sounds like that but theres no cruelty on Carrie& Lowell. Instead theres human beings and acceptance. Its a record not just of sadness, but wonder. Its the audio of the space between the stars.
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