April 2015

Arts & Letters

Minus the trimmings

By Anwen Crawford

Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie & Lowell’

Why don’t I hate Sufjan Stevens? He plays the banjo. He plays the oboe. His stage shows have included hula hoops and cheerleaders. He has yet to meet an encyclopaedia entry that he couldn’t turn into a concept album, and he has released two five-disc box sets of Christmas songs (sample title: ‘Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!’). He plays the glockenspiel. Daub me in glitter glue and truss me up with pipe cleaners if there’s any more perfect poster boy than Sufjan Stevens for the whitest, cleanest, quaintest sort of contemporary songwriting. He’s Captain Chenille on the Good Ship Indie Pop.

Stevens’ first album, A Sun Came (1999), was a Cook’s tour of global folk music; his second, Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001), an electronic song cycle about the Chinese zodiac. His oft-repeated claim that he would write an album about each American state seems to have stalled, permanently, after two records, Michigan (2003) and Illinois (2005), but there’s also been a contemporary classical work about the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway (The BQE, 2009) and a return to electronica with 2010’s divisive The Age of Adz.

I don’t hate Sufjan Stevens, because, amid the tinsel and the smell of library index cards, his songs draw on deep reservoirs of feeling: grief, shame, remorse. He is a devout if unorthodox Christian, so humility is a guiding theme; he returns, over and again, to the sacrifice of the Crucifixion and the inadequacies of a believer in the face of it. His most overtly religious album, Seven Swans (2004), was also his sparest, until now.

The lead single from Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell, is called ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’, which indicates something of the record’s ascetic mood. Self-destruction follows close behind. “Fuck me, I’m falling apart,” Stevens sings, over finger-picked guitar, while an air-conditioner whirrs in the background. That, musically speaking, is that – but, thematically, it’s a tangled and painful knot.

Carrie & Lowell deals with the death of Stevens’ mother, Carrie, a schizophrenic, alcoholic, intermittently homeless woman who left the family when Stevens was a year old, never to return. The death of this mother he hardly knew (she died in 2012, of stomach cancer) “nearly destroyed me”, said Stevens, in a recent interview with the music website Pitchfork. Lowell, to whom Carrie was married for five years, is Stevens’ stepfather; Stevens described him in the same interview as “my closest fatherly companion”. The two men founded a record label, Asthmatic Kitty, in 1999, through which all of Stevens’ albums have been released.

A photograph of Carrie and Lowell forms the new album’s cover art – taken somewhere long ago, in a living room lost to time. The image is pocked with mould and crazed with lines; the songs are crazed too, in the perilous depths of grief that they describe, though they are delivered with preternatural control. Stevens’ music has often been described as baroque, which in his case means more than ornamentation: classically trained, he draws on actual Baroque styles. His basic compositional technique, whatever the instrument (he plays dozens), is rapidly stated, repeating arpeggios, and his vocal melodies step neatly up and down their intervals. On previous albums, he performed multipart songs, often with choir, that owed as much to Baroque cantatas as to Broadway musicals (another of his stated influences). There is little give in Stevens’ music, and certainly none of the improvisational ardour that we most associate with rock ’n’ roll. His tempos have no elasticity, his voice lacks heat. The orderliness of his musical style, on this album, functions as something like a safety cage – a necessity, at least for Stevens, given the difficulty of his subject matter.

The first song on Carrie & Lowell is ‘Death with Dignity’, and those sweet-sounding, clockwork arpeggios, performed on mandolin, lead off immediately. Stevens’ voice is multi-tracked, so that he harmonises with himself, and a piano drops in, briefly, at the song’s midpoint. Perhaps Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ was a model here: another opening track to a desolate record, another stark piano melody. I never thought I’d hear an album that made Pink Moon feel blessedly alive by comparison. Even in his despair, Drake sounds like he’s sitting in the room with you: you can hear his fingers moving on the fretboard of his guitar. Despite the ramshackle recording process of Carrie & Lowell – some songs were recorded directly onto a mobile phone – Stevens sounds a universe away, unreachably remote in his pain.

“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you,” he sings, “and I long to be near you.” This is the absence to which the album returns, obsessively, as only the bereaved can obsess, and it drags Stevens away from the earthly concerns of the living. “There’s only a shadow of me / In a manner of speaking I’m dead,” he sings on ‘John My Beloved’, a later track.

Stevens is not a confessional songwriter, though he can be a revealing one, not least due to his habit of expressing Christian devotion in a highly charged, borderline erotic language. “To be alone with me / You went up on that tree,” he breathed on ‘To Be Alone with You’, from Seven Swans. “I’ve never known a man who loved me.” His consistent use of male pronouns when referring to a beloved has led to years of speculation, which Stevens has never addressed: is he gay, or merely steadfast in his faith? Whatever his sexuality, it surfaces on Carrie & Lowell, alongside his absent mother and his distant God, as one more in a set of impossible intimacies.

“You checked your text while I masturbated,” Stevens sings on ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, the album’s third track. The line is frank, certainly, but what is a listener meant to do with it? You are no part of this loneliness. “On the sheet I see your horizon,” he sings later, “all of me pressed onto you”. It’s a beautiful, desperate image – mysterious, too. Is the horizon the outline of a body, or a trace left on the bed in the body’s absence? Horizon sounds like orison; as usual, Stevens collapses the distance between his longing for human love and his equally fierce desire for religious salvation. The song is played on what sounds like an autoharp, which, like the mandolin, is a metal-stringed instrument, brittle rather than resonant. It doesn’t draw you in so much as lock you out.

There is a song on Michigan, called ‘Romulus’, which now sounds like a prelude to the tragedy of Carrie & Lowell. It is a song about Stevens’ mother. “We saw her once last fall / Our grandpa died in a hospital gown,” Stevens sings, accompanying himself on banjo. “She didn’t seem to care / She smoked in her room and coloured her hair.” Another hospital room appears in ‘Fourth of July’, the centrepiece of Carrie & Lowell, only this time it is Carrie who is dying.

The verses of ‘Fourth of July’ switch back and forth between Stevens’ narration and the imagined voice of his mother, rendered in simple couplets, like a nursery rhyme. A muffled piano sounds in the distance. “Did you get enough love, my little dove / Why do you cry?” sings Stevens, as Carrie, reaching for the frailest upper register of his thin tenor voice. “And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best / Though it never felt right.” I can imagine why Stevens needed to write this scene, dramatising a motherly comfort he never received, but, as with the rest of Carrie & Lowell, I wonder what part a listener has to play in it.

I don’t think these songs were written for an audience. No doubt they had to be written, and Stevens might well have saved his own life by writing them, but they are songs for himself, for his mother, and for his God. To all his previous projects, no matter how outré, Stevens brought an abiding sense of joy, because of his collaborative energies: the hula-hoop dancers might have been twee, but they also swept an audience into something big. How he plans to tour Carrie & Lowell I’ve no idea – presumably, minus the trimmings. There are a half-dozen musicians listed in the credits; even so, Stevens sounds very much alone. You will comprehend this album if bereavement has ever felt to you like being frozen inside pack ice. It is a beautiful recording, and it is arid, and it goes nowhere.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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