WORDS: ANDREW SAMPSON
You’re in an intimate venue. A bar perhaps. The vintage couches and chandelier above the performing space help to set a melancholic, maybe nostalgic atmosphere, while multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens is performing… ‘naked’ (figuratively speaking of course).
He aches, he cries, he whispers, he reflects, as he performs songs from his latest studio effort. All the while, you, too, feel yourself drowning in Stevens’ river of sorrow…
Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’ much anticipated first album in five years and seventh overall, was recently released on the 31st of March. The album was named after his late mother (who passed away in 2012) and stepfather, and is a sombre and mostly dark indie folk release with Stevens baring his soul like never before. The album grapples with many (pressing) subjects, among them his ambivalence towards his alcoholic mother who deserted him at a young age, and the summers he endured with her and Lowell, his stepfather.
Both lyrically and musically, the questioning, blunt and often resentful relationship between the two parties aids in creating something quite extraordinary, never offering a shortage of songs soaked in grief and bitterness, words he left unsaid.
And naturally it’s pretty messy – the jumbled, often chaotic emotions that have left (evident) scars, and the juxtaposition of his simplistic and complex vocals and compositions helps create a deeply-personal, well-constructed album which showcases Stevens’ benevolence, sincerity and fascination with finding answers and ultimate solace.
The album relies on sparse instrumentation, which further aids in establishing the album as dense but still breathtakingly beautiful (and tragic). This is evident on the brooding “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “Fourth of July”. “Death with Dignity” and the title track, “Should Have Known Better”, however, showcase Stevens at his best, with light percussion, haunting ‘choral’ vocals and guitar, helping him to make sense of his chaos.
Stevens recently spoke to Pitchfork Media, a Chicago-based music webzine, about the impact his mother’s death had on his life, and said: “Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable.”
Ultimately, on Carrie & Lowell, Stevens chooses to reflect on, as opposed to understanding, past trials and tribulations. And by being consumed by his loneliness, confusion and quest for second chances, he realises just how vicious life can truly be.