For those of us awaiting a worthy, song-based successor to Sufjan Stevens's esteemed 2006 album Illinois, there has long been a frustratingly extra-curricular feel to some of the music he has released in the interim.
Brilliant as it was, 2009's The BQE, an orchestrated tone poem inspired by the most unlikely of muses, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was always going to be niche, and even 2010's The Age of Adz, a dazzlingly complex, mostly electronic work part-informed by the apocalyptic visions of the late outsider artist and paranoid schizophrenic Royal Robertson, felt like something in parenthesis, a concept album itch this Detroit-born, Brooklyn, New York-based musician had to scratch.
You could argue that ever since he ditched his much-talked-about Fifty States Project (to date, Illinois and its 2003 predecessor Michigan are the only fruits of Stevens's pledge to release an album themed around every US state), the singer hasn't had quite the right vehicle for the more emotive, much more traditional kind of songwriting at which he also excels. But when Stevens's mother Carrie died of stomach cancer in 2012 that all changed, however, and now comes Carrie & Lowell, a deeply personal record which is also an extraordinary meditation on life and death, love and loss.
Stevens’s parents split-up when he was 4, and the Lowell of the title is actually his stepfather, Lowell Brams. As a child, Stevens spent three summers with Carrie and Lowell in Portland, Oregon, between the ages of 5 and 8, and the rest of his time in Michigan with his father Rasjid and his stepmother. All of this is alluded to on Stevens’s new album, an engrossing jigsaw of childhood memories, beautifully poetic imagery and adult faith in crisis.
In 2006, when I interviewed Stevens, he told me that as a 10-year-old walking to school, he would listen to cassettes of Nick Drake and Neil Young albums that Lowell had mailed to him. It was also with Lowell’s help that Stevens would eventually set up his own record label Asthmatic Kitty, now home to this album.
Carrie & Lowell is nothing if not bittersweet, however, and early on, we get the first clues that Stevens's grief for his mother, a woman who suffered from depression and alcoholism and would later divorce Lowell, might be freighted with all kinds of complexity. "When I was three / three maybe four / she left us at that video store" runs part of Should Have Known Better. That Carrie & Lowell is a love letter is never in doubt, but Stevens's resistance of the hagiological impulse that grief often induces gives the record power. On The Only Thing, one of the many songs here built upon calming lattices of deftly picked nylon-string guitar, the singer airs his gravest concern: "In the vale of great surprises / I wonder did you love me at all?"
The album's cover art utilises a distressed and creased photo of its titular couple, the kind of pre-smartphone snap that, once fished from a bottom drawer and gazed upon, has huge transportive power. There's a deliberate and very tangible link between the cover art and the album's stark, intimate sound. Indeed, the moments when Stevens suddenly introduces a cavernous reverb – witness the treated piano interlude of sublime opening song Death With Dignity – feel like the sonic equivalent of a door opening onto the past.
On songs such as No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross and the title track, intimate vocals and the melting quality of Stevens's fine, Art Garfunkel-like falsetto increase the sense that we are being confided in, but first and foremost, Stevens made this record for himself. At root, it seems to be an attempt to cauterise his grief and make sense of long-buried hurts deriving from his fractured relationship with his mother.
It's clear, moreover, that like a particularly revelatory session on the psychiatrist's couch, making Carrie & Lowell was at times very discomfiting for the singer. "I had to eliminate fiction in order in to get at the heart of the matter of death," Stevens recently told Mojo magazine. "Everything on this record is true."
On an album of unflinching songs, the most unflinching of all is Fourth of July. Its melody is so bewitchingly pretty that you don't immediately realise the lyric finds Stevens by his mother's deathbed answering the hospital's questions about the care of her body. The minimalist musical arrangement is extraordinary; a soft cloud of washed-out keyboards that perfectly evokes both the surreal nature of last goodbyes, and a loved one travelling down a tunnel that ends in whiteout. At one point, Stevens has Carrie finally apologising: "And I'm sorry I left / but it was for the best / though it never felt right."
The singer is also very good on how, in the near aftermath of loss, signs and symbols pertaining to your loved one seem to be everywhere. "Should I tear my eyes out now? / everything I see / returns to you somehow," he sings on The Only Thing, while part of Death With Dignity runs: "Your apparition passes through me in the willows / and five red hens / you'll never see us again". It seems highly likely that that simple, strong image of five red hens is significant, but what might its significance be? Elsewhere, even the effect one's grief has on others is addressed. "I am a man with a heart that offends with its lonely and greedy demands," he tells us on John, My Beloved. 'There's only a shadow of me / in a matter [sic] of speaking I'm dead.'
Stevens, his brother Marzuki (now an Olympic-class marathon runner) and sister Djohariah attended Detroit Waldorf School, an establishment built upon the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The singer’s parents were for a time members of the Subud spiritual movement, and the leader of their particular congregation gave Stevens the Arabic/Armenian/Persian forename Sufjan, which means “comes with a sword”.
Carrie & Lowell certain ly shines all kinds of new light on Stevens’s upbringing – and like 2004’s Seven Swans, another in- die-folk record with references to his family background – it is cryptic, resonant and magical enough to keep us coming back for more.
Why, you wonder, do its songs reference a whole raft of characters from Greek mythology including Poseidon, Pegasus and Medusa? And why does Stevens find himself on Spencer's Butte – a locale that Google tells us is a street in Portland, Oregon – during the song All of Me Wants All of You?
“At worst, these songs probably seem really indulgent,” the singer recently told US website Pitchfork. “At their best, they should act as a testament to an experience that’s universal: Everyone suffers, life is pain, and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence.”
In attempting to deal with the loss of his mother and confront his own mortality – "We're all gonna die," repeats Stevens at the end of Fourth of July – this perennially fascinating musician has made a touching and exquisitely beautiful work. When the nominations for best albums of 2015 roll around, Carrie & Lowell will surely ride high.
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.