APRIL: Sufjan Stevens ‘Carrie and Lowell’

carrie-and-lowell

By now you should all have your copy of this album. Apologies for the delay in getting this post up on the site.

I’ve owned this album for about a week now and while I have spent some time with it, I’ve not been able to focus on it as much as I would like to. Therefore, this won’t be the usual heartfelt, personal introduction that so often Album Of The Month posts are. What I will do is share my path to this album and my initial thoughts.

My introduction to Sufjan Stevens, like so many others was through ‘Illinois’ a concept album of tracks inspired by the state, perhaps the worst idea for a concept album ever … but one of the finest albums of its decade (in my humble opinion). The critics agreed and Sufjan became a relatively well-known name in the 20-40 something, music loving, gig-going crowd. From there I went backwards to ‘Seven Swans’ which is a far simpler affair more about song writing than the complex musical adornment seen on Illinois. I missed a lot of what came after Illinois (4 albums including an Xmas album that really is worth a listen when it comes to that time of year again!) and picked up again with Age of Adz. This was released around the time that Silvia was born and very much reminds me of the time and feelings involved. For this reason it has a very special place in my heart. However well received by critics I think a lot of people found that a step too far in terms of musical trickery (wankery) and needless complexity. An album and an EP later and Sufjan releases Carrie & Lowell.

The album is inspired by the death of his troubled Mother, Carrie and her life including her relatively short relationship with his Father (or Carrie’s partner? I cant recall and am not too concerned about these details) Lowell. That doesn’t sound like a particularly good start for many … expect for me. As has become obvious through the course of our ramblings, I love a musical tear-jerker. I have a very high threshold for heart breaking personal lyrics and always have. I have no problem that the hook on ‘Fourth of July’ is ‘We’re all gonna die’ a sentiment that Sufjan has visited on numerous previous tracks in less detail and with more poetic disguise. This album is full of emotional detail and no attempt at disguise … unless you compare it to something like ‘Benji’ by Sun Kill Moon (a favourite of mine from last year). ‘Benji’ was heartbreakingly sad and even I find it a tough listen unless I am in precisely the right place.

The difference for me is that ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is hypnotic in its presentation, its beautiful in its simplicity. Mr. Steven’s has removed many of the musical obstacles that he created in earlier works to reveal the beauty of his melodies. His voice is a fragile and at points a brittle instrument but it is perfectly suited to the lyrical content. At points he sounds like Elliot Smith which for me is no problem as he is another artist that I have held close to my heart (I am an ageing, depressed and confused teenager after all).

The big question I think others will need to answer is ‘do I find this depressing or do I find it beautiful?’.

Enjoy (if you think that is the right word).

12 comments

  1. whyohwhyohwhy

    Thanks for the write-up Brother Joseph. I think that I may straddle the very dilemma you describe.

    Disclaimer: I’ve just split up with my girlfriend of just over a year, having thought until fairly recently this may (finally) be a keeper. Suffice to say, however amicable (and correct) it all was, I’m less than two weeks into singledom and life still feels pretty bleak and raw. I know a) it’ll get better and b) music will help, but there’s real apprehension for me with an album like this. I listened to it once pre-break up and it made me emotional then. I’m frankly scared about going again.

    However, I’ve – what is it lately, first Kendrick Lamar and now this – come to another album where I’m the last to know. I’m aware of his existence, but I’ve never knowingly listened to a Sufjan track let alone an album. So, I hope this may lift me up with its beauty, rather than crush me with its melancholy. The jury was out after the first listen, but I will come back to it, now I’m feeling more level-headed.

    Bear with me 🙂

  2. misterstory

    Im sorry to hear that Guy. I hope things pick up for you.
    I was going to write a post a few months back about what everyone listens to in different moods. I am a bit of a wallower-in-self-pity type of chap so tend to listen to heartbreaking music when I am down. Sort of like trying to force out the sadness through an over-dose of emotion. I understand this is not everyone’s approach though. However, I also don’t have too much ‘happy’ music anyway.

  3. whyohwhyohwhy

    Yeah I think I’m through the worst. It’s shit though isn’t it!

    That’s a good post, and I think it’d be good to get that discussion going. We’ve not had a non-specific ramble for a while. I find that I have to steer clear of some things usually. I’m such a sap these days that a single few bars of music can bring a tear to the eye and there’s definitely records I’m not listening to at the moment, much of which remind me of the last year, which is a shame, as there’s been some great music around. It’s not everything though. Dance music is pretty much impenetrable to this, but music is generally such a massive part of who I am that I can instantly listen to a track and I am transported back to a time and a place. It’s a balancing act. I know I can’t listen to Ben Watt’s Hendra, or Father John Misty at the moment either, or Metronomy’s Love Letters, it’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

    Conversely, I’m ok with – and really enjoying – this album. It’s melancholy, but it’s about something/someone else, and so it doesn’t seem to cut to me as it would when I’ve got a different album that’s just linked to me or some sort of time, place or emotion. And given that it’s ‘post’ the last year, it’s actually refreshing to have something new to feel like it’s not connected with it. Musically, it’s lovely, stripped down, and finely judged, the guitar/multi-tracked vocals do everything you need them to do with nothing else required. It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually pick up or go for, but it’s absolutely beautiful. I really nice choice.

    For the same reason, I’m probably not going to hang on to Kendrick Lamar but that’s another post.

  4. David Allison

    Hey Brother G, sorry to hear of your love woes, that sucks. Hope you’re moving on and moving strong soon.

    So, I’m a BIG Sufjan fan – in fact, I still listen to Illinois all the flipping time. But he has lost his way and some of the electronic noodling he’s released in the last few years has not matched up to his best work. Also, did ANYONE get through his 4 disc Xmas album other than him and his producer?!

    Anyway. I was expecting big things from this. And on first listen – I didn’t feel it. It’s beautiful, but it’s so stark and so one pace, I felt a bit cheated. I was hoping for some delicate strings or more of a band, as on a track like Chicago. But I’ve kept listening, and also read a bit more about the album (this is a great Pitchfork piece: http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/9595-true-myth-a-conversation-with-sufjan-stevens/) – and slowly, it’s begun to open itself up to me like a flower. And sure enough, now it’s got its claws in me and I’m hooked.

    The question is: how does he convey so much with such simple songwriting, when SO many others, armed with only an acoustic guitar and a nice voice, fail? He has something magical and he has rediscovered here, on what is clearly a very, very personal and affecting album.

    I was wondering if it would be quite such a listen without knowledge of his mother’s story. Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. But it’s nice to have that context, just as I’m enjoying deciphering Kendrick L’s lyrics on Rap Genius. I remember Brother Joey saying it was hard to find the time to LISTEN like we used to, poring over the record sleeve and learning every word. Well I’m not quite back at that stage, but I am trying to re-engage with a record more fully when I like it. It’s proving a rewarding decision.

    Anyway, a lovely album. Thanks for nominating it.

  5. whyohwhyohwhy

    Thanks brothers. Shit is wack, as they say, but it’s getting better. And ironically I’ve listened to this quite a bit and love it. I’ve not read the back story too deeply and I don’t feel I need to that much. I’m not someone that really connects to music because of its reality but mine. Some of the most lyrically simple albums can mean tons simply because of when or where I listened to it or who with.

    This is in some ways, a breath of fresh air. Aren’t people odd?

  6. misterstory

    Glad you guys are enjoying it. I’m a bit like Guy, I don’t know the back story in too much detail but am really enjoying this album. Brother David is right about it being incredible how he can convey so much with so little. Layers and layers of vocal tracks might be one of the tricks though?

  7. nolankane706

    Well although it has taken me almost a year to respond to this I have in fact been all over this and it has been on non-stop in my car for the last month.

    For me Sufjan represents a space in time that I still look back at fondly. My weekends were spent DJ all over the shop, but Sundays were boozy affairs in a bar with some on my nearest (brother Joey mainly) where we’d chat music, life and utter tripe. I was listening to allot of Sufjan at the time perhaps as a tonic to the 4/4 beats that consumed much of my week.

    I loved how he could take me to a calm place that was familar but a bit distant at the same time.

    So the new album. In short I love this. It’s right up my street. Like brother David I’m a big fan of Sufjan though I did struggle to fully get into his more electronic adventures as of late.

    On the basis of what he has released over the last few years my expectations were low. I did worry that he’d moved on from the Sufjan that I had been blown away by in days gone by. Luckily it seems he’s back to the levels of old.

    As I say, I have been listening to this non stop for a while now and have passed the point of stand out tracks and am just enjoying the whole album.

    He is a fantastic artist, and if you’re into this I highly recommend you get stuck into Michigan, Seven Swans, Illinois, The Avalanche and even his Christmas album.

    Short and sweet by me this month brothers….. it’s ace, I’m enjoying it!!

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