Sufjan Stevens | Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

cd sufjan-carrieThe otherworldly ambiance that envelops these spare and direct melodies, beautiful ballads of soft spoken truths, is hypnotic and striking.




Pretend you don’t know a thing about the genesis of Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’ latest release. Taking it in as a whole, having not heard any of the prerelease singles or word of mouth, what does this work communicate as a piece unto itself? What sort of experience is Carrie & Lowell to digest aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally?

For me, Carrie & Lowell is the work of a troubadour in the most traditional sense. It wouldn’t sound out of place scoring some ethereal imagery in some long forgone time, or permutation of an alternate reality akin to such a past. The arrangements that frame Stevens’ poetic turns of phrase, which are both of this time and timeless, lean on the baroque, with his tenor cutting clearly, though softly through all the ambiance. What strikes a nerve are the ornate, yet frank reflections on the universal realities of hindsight and regret in the face of uncertainty and finality. So poetically put, these introspections trade in antiquated metaphors and contemporary references that reinforce the perpetual ubiquity of contemplating the ultimate mysteries of life, those things we simply cannot know, because for some reason we don’t have the power to inquire of those who would know the answers, if ever we did. If must reconcile the space our feelings occupy, though they have no mass.

When Stevens sings “Should I tear my heart now…” on “The Only Thing,” those words take on a obscured meaning, given the acts seems to have occurred time and time again leading up to this, the seventh song. It’s as if he has suffered a fate akin to Prometheus, which makes the existential anguish those words convey convicting all the more. Carrie & Lowell comes across as a series of confessions one might pen to themselves, a confidante, or loved one. The songs are beautiful in their capacity to feel intimate and yet expansive, conveying the vastness of human empathic longing, and the depth of emotion one can share, but only when extremely close, at which point they allow themselves to open up.

Carrie & Lowell is not impressionistic composition, and yet it harnesses that paradigm. Stevens has fashioned a vessel, forgoing all the effervescent emotion unrestrained impressionistic composers may be compelled to project; found the appropriate tonal range; and used that as a lens through which these songs, this body of work, is composed. The otherworldly ambiance that envelops these spare and direct melodies, beautiful ballads of soft spoken truths, is hypnotic and striking.

For all the air between the notes and echoes filling the ether, Carrie & Lowell is as vivid as the sun’s reflection on a stream, not unlike the body of water heard on “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.” Stevens bridges a divide between the folk traditions that we tend to associate with the singer-songwriters of the rock ’n’ roll era, classical composition, and what some would dare call New Age music without inarticulately broaching any of them directly or muddling the individual songs or the collective suite of material that make up Carrie & Lowell. All the while, Stevens gives voice to what sound like unfiltered thoughts from a conflicted soul with a lot on his mind, and a gift for creating music. This is a lush piece of work, a tone poem, and an exercise in what one can only hope is the therapeutic power of music to provide an outlet for the wealth of emotions this life, and the absence of its constituents, can bring out.

Be sure to catch Sufjan Stevens on tour as he performs the entirety of Carrie & Lowell, in slightly augmented running order, in addition to songs from his previous works complimentary to this material. One can only imagine the power these songs will wield when rendered in the flesh. A | Willie Edward Smith

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