Could this be Sufjan Stevens' most heart-breaking record yet? Gone is the colourful melody, the big brass, the backing vocal gymnastics, the tales of star people; most definitely gone is the electronic explosion of last album 'The Age Of Adz'. But do we expect anything else from Sufjan than the unexpected?
'Carrie & Lowell' is raw, personal and absolutely stunning. Despite the plethora of incredible albums that have already been released this year, Sufjan's document will – without doubt – emerge as one of the year's defining moments.
It's an album that delves into Sufjan's childhood and the mixed emotions he feels for his mother, an alcoholic who deserted him when he was just three or four. She died in 2012, leaving a gaping wound that's being filled with beautiful music. It's an honest outpouring of love and grief, with little bitterness. When you know the story, it's difficult to listen to the material without crying.
Opener 'Death With Dignity' takes lightly picked guitar and a warm piano, like it's being played in the corner of a 70s sitting room, and pairs it with Sufjan's gentle voice."I forgive you mother, I can hear you and I long to be near you, but every road leads to an end" he sings, in the most personal of messages.
At times, you can hear the room he's in, or the noises from his window. Throughout, you can hear the importance of his songs and the words he never had the chance to say.
'Should Have Known Better' is probably the only song on the album that harks back to the 'Illinois' era, but only mildly. Sufjan's multi-tracked vocals lead to an uplifting ending, supported by the simplest of backing. It's the repetition of the melody and the powerful, positive lyrics – still without any brass or flute flutterings – that clutch on to the pit of your stomach.
With the minimum of instruments – banjo, guitar, piano at the core – its closest sibling is 'Seven Swans', but really, it's like nothing you've heard from Sufjan before. It's delicate and totally engrossing, and leaves you wanting to hear more: from 'Eugene', which, at just 2:27 minutes, is like a shot of Paul Simon at his very best, to 'Fourth Of July' and its tender piano accompanying the stark reality that we're all going to die.
'Carrie & Lowell' is an album of memories and stories. It's covered in the decades-old dust of a turbulent family life and how one man, one child, learned to deal with it all. It may well be our first insight into the real Sufjan. It's heavy, but so very beautiful.
Words: Gemma Hampson
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