Sufjan Stevens is interested in the transitive nature of things. His songs, from the plaintive Seven Swans to 2010’s new noise freakout Age of Adz devote huge swaths of thought to the stormy relationship between past and future. Even the products of his much-ballyhooed 50 States Project (only 48 to go!) were less tributes to Illinois and Michigan than they were time capsules. Stevens is a historian at heart, but one with a wary eye on the present. He doesn’t care about the past so much as he cares about how the past manufactured the present, and what that means about tomorrow. Apparitions got awry, they surround me, all sides, he howls mournfully on Age of Adz’s “I Want to Be Well.” From what am I seeing, only changes. Or, as he puts it more simply in “Chicago”: All things go.All of Sufjan Stevens’ self destructive attempts to grapple with death fall apart in the face of God’s own death.
His new album, Carrie and Lowell, (Asthmatic Kitty) doesn’t deviate from that obsession, but it does come from a deeply tragic experience. It’s the sum outpouring of his grief following the death of his mother (the titular Carrie.) He was only one year old when she left, a woman wracked by substance abuse and mental illness. He barely knew her, and all this greatly pains him.
What he did know of her, and what few memories he has of her and her second husband, Lowell, flicker through these songs in much the same way Stevens must recollect them: vivid, brief, inconsequential moments. Catching her face through a window in the door. Being forgotten by her at a video rental store. Flimsy memories, but in the wake of her death, they’re all he has.
In death’s wake, people often ask: “Where, O death, is your sting?” You get the impression Stevens would like to stick his finger in Paul’s chest and tell him exactly where it is. Death’s sting is in the distances we did not traverse enough in life. In the times phone calls could have been made, or vacations arranged. I should have wrote a letter, Stevens despairs. And grieve what I happen to grieve.
This album was largely marketed as Stevens’ return to the folk songs that made him famous, but he’s never sounded like this before. There is no excess employed here—no flights of whimsical glockenspiels or Seven Swansy choirs. Only one song cracks the five minute mark, and long gone are the unwieldy song titles. In point of fact, Stevens sounds too exhausted for most of this to even consider striking up the band.
While a few friends do show up here and there, he seems very alone here, crafting quiet moments of astonishing beauty. In the album’s first half, that beauty is paired with overwhelming sorrow and questions that have no answers. What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you? he asks on on “Eugene.” How did this happen? he demands of God on “Drawn to the Blood.” What did I do to deserve this?—familiar questions to anyone caught in death’s shadow.
This being a Sufjan Stevens album, he does turn to God, but this being a Sufjan Stevens album, he does so in a roundabout way. His anguish seems to reach a breaking point on the impossibly sad “The Fourth of July.” The song starts with a trio of simple, gloomy piano chords, as Stevens recounts the night of his mother’s death in startling, heartrending detail. “Did you get enough love, my little dove?” he asks his mother. “Why do you cry? I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right.”
As the song continues, an ominous drone sounds in the background, and Stevens does what he does best: connect a singular moment to universal truths. “Make the most of your life, while it is rife . . . We’re all gonna die.”
It sounds like a grim moment, and it is, but it marks a turning point in the album too. From there on out, Stevens’ sorrow does not abate so much as it gets cast toward God. “The Only Thing” wrestles with suicidal thoughts, but concludes that “The only reason I continue at all . . . blind faith, God’s grace.”
Death remains a constant spectre on the second half of the album, but it’s a less ominous one. In a manner of speaking, I’m dead, Stevens reasons on the album standout “Beloved, My John,” which drifts woozily back and forth between recounting a fading romantic relationship and a blossoming spiritual one. And on the sparse, gorgeous “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” all Stevens’ self destructive attempts to grapple with death fall apart in the face of God’s own death.
Lord, he prays on the final song. Touch me with lightning. It’s hard to tell whether this is a cry for death or life, but given what little resolution is offered here, that may be the point. As in Flannery O’Connor, death serves both as grim reaper and instrument of mercy. It’s not exactly a comfort. Carrie and Lowell isn’t that kind of album. But it is a different place than where he started.
I don’t know how to begin, he sings on the very first track, which he follows with we all know how this will end. Interested in the transitive nature of things Stevens may be, but he’s turning 40 this year. He knows there’s an end on the horizon, and that fixed point seems to give him some sense of certainty. So can we contend peacefully, before my history ends? he muses.
That’s another question without an answer, but it’s not by accident that he follows it with Jesus, I need you. Be near. Come shield me from fossils that fall near my head. He comes to much the same conclusion as Orual does at the end of Till We Have Faces: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer.” All things really do go, but on Carrie and Lowell, Stevens has at least found some solace in the parameters provided by our inevitable graves.