Given my hard-to-stay-dead crisis of not being able to love any new music, it seemed to make the most sense to stick with happy/poppy/fun records to snap me out of it. What I needed was a good time! It sure didn’t make any sense to get a record about death.
Plus I already had a few records by this artist and felt I may have maxed out on him anyway.
But then, my son Michael - an adult now, who makes his own choices - comes to the rescue and gets this record anyway. And although I tend to stick to those records I myself buy, in this case I’m happy to make an exception.
Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan sometimes does long, sprawling albums, filled with orchestrations, like Michigan and Illinois (one of my faves from the last decade), and experiments in electronica like The Age of Adz. He even wrote a symphony about the BQE. link
But occasionally he’ll just write a bunch of tunes, perform them in a simple setting, and end up with a simple, straightforward album. Before, it was the religiously themed Seven Swans. And now, it’s Carrie & Lowell, about the death of his mother.
Now before you get all weepy about it, or worse, feel like you’re being forced into having to like something because of the subject matter, Sufjan points out how their relationship was complicated by her substance abuse and mental health issues, necessitating her leaving him when he was three, to be brought up by others.
So it’s hardly a miss you so much ma weep-fest, There’s an admission of the pain and regret left in the wake of such a relationship and the death that ends it, preventing it from ever being fully repaired.
But he doesn't try to just get by on the gravity of the theme, slipping in some sub-par songs because we feel sorry for him. He puts together eleven excellent to brilliant songs. There’s no skimping here at all.
The first song - “Death With Dignity” - actually starts with an uplifting melody and guitar figure, and ends with some subtle pedal steel guitar and almost Beach Boy-like harmonies. It's a microcosm of the rest of the album - a deft mixture of pain and joy.
Next comes “I Should Have Known Better”, and again, the music is sweet and muted, while the lyrics probe how to better handle such a complicated relationship, and ending hopefully by looking to the future, embodied by his niece.
“All of Me Wants All of You”, about a less than equal relationship, opens up a bit more musically, which is nice, since it staves off the claustrophobia one might feel after a couple of very low key numbers.
“Eugene” is a sweet, short folk song - just guitar and vocal like you’d expect from Cat Stevens. And since Sufjan is a religious fellow, here’s where I note the swimming instructor, pouring water on his head and mispronouncing his name, like a very public and very imperfect baptism. It’s just one of the many religious and mythical references here that will take me years to figure out.
“Fourth of July” may be the quietest song on the record, but it’s also the most intense. The lyrics are a dialog between him and his mother both before and after her death. It’s a quiet masterpiece:
Did you get enough love, my little dove,
Why do you cry?
I’m sorry I left,
But it was for the best
My little Versailles.
It’s followed by the most beautiful song I’ve heard all year. The lyrics to “The Only Thing” are full of despair and thoughts of suicide, but the melody is so sweet that one is left feeling full of hope. The guitar interlude followed by the final verse may be the most sublime musical moment I’ve felt for years.
And after the poppy - relatively speaking - title cut, it gets quieter again,and stays that way until the end, which might be forbidding for any but the true believers. It’s all right, though, By now I am one.
I like how Sufjan, while keeping things sparse, doesn't get lazy with the instrumentation. He finds the exact string instrument that's right for the song. And I'd tell you what those instruments were if I could get the damned liner notes to open.
And he doesn't stint on the melody. Oh, he gets a bit prissy with his vocals occasionally, but only if the tune or the theme calls for it.
Those melodies are very straightforward, so it’s easy to get lulled into thinking you know what you're getting on first listen. But like John Prine and Neil Young before him, he’s written music that is so strong it stays with you long after you thought it would lose its power.
And it was this very mistake that led to my disappointment at his recent show. If I had just stayed with the album a little longer, the concert would have been brilliant. I’ve had similar missed opportunities, like Elvis Costello in 1981, who, in the prior year, had put out three albums containing a total of 55(!) songs, all of which he seemed to play that night, and none of which I’d heard as yet, and REM in 1985, when in retrospect it would have been a good idea to have picked up their debut EP Chronic Town, which brought the show to a rousing finish.
By the time I saw Sufjan, I’d clearly underestimated his album. There was another level of enjoyment I hadn’t gotten to by then that I’d only reach over the next few weeks, when we played it over and over and over again.
I thought Aphex Twin would be the right way back into happy music, now I think Sufjan Stevens is. Of course, if I heard Carrie & Lowell in January, I may have never left the house again. But to paraphrase “Game of Thrones”, to get to happy, head to sad.
Yup, Carrie & Lowell is one of those "demanding" albums. No fun - the one thing I was looking for - at all. And yet, it's the best thing I've heard all year.
I guess Mick was right. If you try sometimes, you get what you need.
“The Only Thing”