Friday, May 8, 2015
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell, the new Sufjan Stevens album, is a song cycle inspired by and reflecting on the passing of Stevens’ mother a few years ago. And, although I’m a fan of his previous output, much of it jubilant and fun, the new record’s grim turn didn’t diminish my interest. In fact, I made a personal commitment to write about Carrie & Lowell before I’d heard a note of it, because I think a lot about mortality, which triggered my interest in whatever reflections the artist best known for a bombastic ode to the city of Chicago might have on the matter.
It’s easy to talk about the inescapable nature of death when it’s not happening to or near you. It’s also easy to think you have a lot to say about it until you start trying to shape the mass of fears and notions roiling around your brain into a coherent position. Casting around, I referenced a cross section of such existential literary icons as Albert Camus and Franz Kafka, along with a few modern musical equivalents in Tom Waits and Nick Cave, in an attempt to synthesize my impressions about our inevitable end. I made little headway. As Woody Allen put it, “Millions of books written on every conceivable subject, by all these great minds... but none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do.”
At last, I extracted a pair of sentiments from Shakespeare that, between them, make for a satisfying aggregate of my idealized versus actual views on death:
“It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.” – Julius Caesar
'Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,
When men are unprepared and look not for it.” – Richard III
Armed with this foundation of somewhat contradictory truths, I consider Carrie & Lowell. Sufjan Stevens’ past work blended singer-songwriter introspection, folksy pluck, melancholy balladry, and theatrical sweep. But if there’s one adjective that sums up the essence of his musical oeuvre, that word is “delicate.” Even in songs about manifest destiny and serial killers, the sonic character was tender and intimate. That said, Carrie & Lowell sets a new standard for fragility, even for him.
If Stevens’ breakthrough Illinois album was his late adolescence, full of wide-eyed exuberance about the world he was exploring, then Carrie and Lowell is him at mid-adulthood, facing one of the more damaging punches life throws. No surprise, it’s a reserved, understated record. Autobiographical imagery is interspersed with ruminations on absence, regret, nostalgia, and anger at God, but the delivery is gentle and lullaby-esque.
Not every songwriter can talk about mortality in a credible way. Some don't have the firsthand knowledge to pull it off, the lyrical facility to address something so weighty, or just don’t want to delve into such a thematic downer, especially in the context of a four-minute song.
And yet, it’s the basis for some of the best songs ever written. Instead of just tossing off dismissable pop, these courageous talents address our biggest, scariest questions: How does one face death? What does its unavoidability make us recognize about how we live? Is death a blessing, a punishment, or simply a dispassionate cosmic fact?
By the last stanza of the first song, “Death With Dignity,” Stevens has demonstrated some integrity, because imploring the listener for sympathy would’ve been easy, but directing his lyrical attention to the beyond, from which there can be no acknowledgement, is far more honest: “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end.”
There’s a pristine, hopeful tenor to Carrie & Lowell, like Sunday morning in church before all the people arrive and ruin it. This record transforms despondency into a soft, peaceful yield, even though some lyrics indicate that getting the feelings out can only take his healing process so far: “What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?”
My mind wanders increasingly to thoughts of age and dying these days, as more and more of the people I care about get older, sicker, more sedentary, less animated. I still haven’t gotten used to the feeling of individuals I’ve known, loved, and idolized simply being gone from this world. Every time I think about them, the recognition of their absence causes a tiny shock of vertigo, even if it’s been years. There’s a wrongness to it, their being dead, that never goes away. So when Stevens practically whispers, “Fuck me I’m falling apart,” in the most soothing of tones, I’m confident he’s had this experience himself. I hope that writing and singing these songs may have helped steady him a bit.