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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell


1) Death With Dignity; 2) Should Have Known Better; 3) All Of Me Wants All Of You; 4) Drawn To The Blood; 5) Eugene; 6) Fourth Of July; 7) The Only Thing; 8) Carrie & Lowell; 9) John My Beloved; 10) No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross; 11) Blue Bucket Of Gold.

General verdict: Let me just count this review as a sympathy card, and then forget about the whole thing for good.

«Most emotional album I've ever heard», «simple, straightforward, and haunting», «one of the best representations of sadness and grief I've ever experienced», «listening to this is like having someone slowly plunging you in the heart with a knife», «you ever feel like crying... fuck, just listen to this shit», «blissful open wound, washing over the listener like sunlight cascading over little specks of dust» — all of these quotes just taken from the opening page of the RYM review section for this record, where Carrie & Lowell was voted the second best album of 2015 (after Kendrick Lamar, of course) and, as of now, the fifth best album of the 2010s. Even on a purely commercial scale, it managed to match the success of The Age Of Adz, finally stabilizing Sufjan as a viable market force — and gave him his highest charting positions overseas to date. This is an album that made history and almost came close to turning Sufjan Stevens into a household name, and he didn't even have to legitimately sell out to do this.

Well, in a way he did sell out, I suppose: Carrie & Lowell is his (superficially) simplest, most accessible, and most conceptually comprehensible album to date. The man's mother died in 2012, after a turbulent and complicated life of substance abuse, schizophrenia, and abandoning her own child when he was just a year old — she went down to the river, put the baby in an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime... oops, wrong story. Anyway, what can be more understan­dable and empathetic than such a story? A troubled mother abandons her year-old child, goes on to have the darkest period in her life, gets resuscitated by her new match (Lowell Brams, Sufjan's stepdad), reconnects with her offspring, eventually divorces her new partner again, finally dies of cancer, and is remembered by her son in a touching tale of traumas, losses, gains, more losses, grudges, mercies, and forgivenesses. Many of us have similar stories to tell, but most of us aren't artistic enough to tell them in ways that would stand out — most of us are waiting for artists to tell us these stories so we could match them to our own experiences. Right?

Politely, I will not blame Sufjan Stevens for any conceptual mishandlings. There is nothing inherently shameful, or embarrassing, or commercially calculated, about writing a cycle of songs about somebody who was close to you. There is even nothing inherently wrong about making this album really about Sufjan rather than about Carrie — all the songs are expressly centered on the songwriter's own feelings about how these events shaped and influenced his life and nobody else's, and we learn far more about Sufjan Stevens from the songs than we do about the actual Carrie and Lowell, but then again, it is Sufjan Stevens who is the singer-songwriter, not Carrie or Lowell (Lowell is a musician, but of an entirely different type). There is nothing wrong about choosing a quiet, restrained, largely acoustic framework for this experience — naturally, it fits the intended mood and the stated purpose far better than the style of The Age Of Adz.

The only thing that is wrong with this album, as far as I am concerned, is that it is a Sufjan Stevens album — more precisely, that Sufjan Stevens has not chosen, or has not been able, to cease being Sufjan Stevens while he was writing and recording these songs. «But why should he have chosen to do so?», shall you ask, and I will answer: of course he shouldn't have, certainly not in this particular case, not in his most autobiographical / personal / intimate musical expe­rience to date. Sincerity and honesty, the presence of which on this album would be very impolite to doubt, are its primary selling points, ones that are undeniably responsible for 90% of the exalted responses selectively quoted at the beginning of this review. But the same primary selling points also represent the album's main weaknesses — by being himself and nobody else, Sufjan flashingly exposes everything that so strongly bugs me about him.

As is typical of Sufjan, the album has a nice sound. N-I-C-E, as in «enjoyable, pleasant, pleasu­rable, agreeable, delightful, satisfying, gratifying, acceptable, affable» etc. etc. Pretty, soothing acoustic picking all over the place; soft piano patterns; relaxing synthesizer backdrops; hushed, tender, falsetto-oriented vocals that manage to redirect even the most painful of grudges onto paths of sweet forgiveness and love for your sinner neighbor. Not a single second of the record intentionally or unintentionally goads you into thinking, «gee, what an asshole»; not a single moment comes across as jarringly misplaced. From the viewpoint of ritualistic public culture circa 2015, Carrie & Lowell is as immaculate as they come. Even a few of those strategically placed «shocking» lines ("you checked your texts while I masturbated", etc.) come across as moments of disarming honesty rather than rude slip-ups.

Unfortunately, when I want for a piece of art to strike me hard on an emotional level, I typi­cally make the mistake of looking for something deeper than «nice». Having only recently re-listened to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, for instance, for the purposes of re-reviewing it, I find that the three piano chords of ʽMotherʼ pack more gut punch to them than Carrie & Lowell in its entire entirety. Certainly, these are different personalities — there is little reason to compare the turbulent, unstable, spiritually violent Lennon with the calm, soft, microscopically subtle Fran­ciscan serenity of Sufjan Stevens. But as banal as that might sound to people soaked in modern cultural values — turbulence, unstability, spiritual violence tend to make for better art than calmness, softness, and microscopic subtlety; at least, such is my understanding of art, based not only on my personal experience, but also on the general history of art up to the beginning of the 21st century, when the idea that «tranquility is the new rebellion» and «boredom is the new excitement» began gaining traction faster than the spread of neo-conservatism.

Turning to the actual songs on Carrie & Lowell, I find... nothing to turn to, because even after about a half a dozen listens, spread over a one-and-a-half year period, I cannot remember how even a single one of them goes. The only thing I remember now, twenty minutes after the last echoes of echoes of echoes of ʽBlue Bucket Of Goldʼ have vaporized away, is how nice it was. The acoustic picking, the pretty falsetto singing, the reverent / symbolic / heartfelt lyrics, maybe the way he found to make lines like "we're all gonna die" sound like Christopher Robin's lecture to Winnie-the-Pooh... yes, it was pretty. But did that guy really make me care? For himself? For Carrie? For Lowell? For humanity? For my immortal soul? Not really. In order to make me care, as a musician, he should have bothered writing music that would be more interesting and challenging to listen to than this lukewarm set of folk-based patterns, many of which sound exactly the same — and are undistinguishable from just about any folk-based singer-songwriting album written by a 20-year old after a crash course in Donovan, Nick Drake, and (to pick a more recent influence) Belle & Sebastian.

If you have not heard the album yet, all you really need to do to know if you will love it or not is listen to the first minute of the opening number, ʽDeath With Dignityʼ. It's got all the trademarks: folk acoustic guitar, hushed vocals eventually rising to a falsetto mini-climax, lyrics about trying to deal with loss and prostrating oneself in humility, with a few cleverly employed tropes placed along the way ("spirit of silence", "old mare", etc.). Nice? Nice. Stunning? Way too nice for me to have the potential to be stunning. Now expand this to 43 minutes and 35 seconds, and you are pretty much set up. Yes, sometimes the tempo will slow down, sometimes the guitar will be replaced by piano, sometimes production values will drop to lo-fi, sometimes the vocals will be brought higher in the mix, but this won't change anything on any major level, and it makes any discussion of any following songs completely irrelevant.

One might make the old argument about how it's all in the lyrics, and how a proper feel for Carrie & Lowell is impossible without going into detail about all the complex metaphors made by Steven — after all, many of the songs are verbally written as love songs, bringing up the old ʽJuliaʼ pattern (that song where Lennon was intentionally mixing up his feelings for his deceased mother and Yoko, remember?), and have deeply-going psychological implications that might be quite interesting to elicit and analyze if you got nothing better to do. But here, too, I find myself too far gone — too deeply spoiled by singer-songwriters like Dylan or Leonard Cohen who, at their best, were not above sacrificing the musical aspect of their work for a simple combination of intellectual lyrics and monotonously placating atmosphere. Stevens, on the contrary, with this album prefers to align himself with this new generation of Musical Terrormalism, people like Justin Vernon and Phil Elverum, who are happy enough to paint static sonic pictures of their teared-up or stone-cold faces because, apparently, nobody was bold enough to do that before them, so that alone should make their contribution to world culture count big.

Granted, Carrie & Lowell is at least not a bad album — it is miles more listenable and enjoyable than anything by Bon Iver, or that abysmally overrated Mount Eerie record that people went nuts for in 2017. Sufjan is not a professional whiner or a professional ice queen, and he doth play his instruments, and a few of these songs, now that I force myself to penetrate them real hard, have ideas that may eventually come across as hooks (provisionally, I'd say the chorus of ʽFourth Of Julyʼ might eventually qualify). But as far as I am concerned, it does not really stand out all that much from the typical pool of Sufjan Stevens albums — just because he has chosen a more down-to-earth topic does not automatically jump-kick it onto a different level — and the fact that many people seriously find themselves teary-eyed and spiritually devastated by listening to this pretty musical pastiche is just one more of those strange, strange (or, perhaps, not so strange) things about this decade that I find so hard to justify.


  1. Strange this is yellow. I find this album offensive. Taken apart from the daunting tragedy of losing someone very close with whom you (maybe) had little chance to reconcile before the mortal disease kicked in, this album is just... empty. Maybe it's because I've gone through the same lately with my mother and it outrages me that Sufjan is (probably unconsciously) using the pity (he has all rights to count on) as a selling point for a very bland unimaginative record.

    If we start remembering great songs about mothers who passed away, I'd say that Lennon's 'Mother' is not a fair example. That song is a self-therapy's outcome, something Lennon had contemplated a lot almost all through his life. His mother's ghost followed him through The Beatles' records, through the good times and the bad. In this sense Sufjan's 'Carrie & Lowell' is a much more reactionist record. "My mother's dead. Let's make a record about it."

    I'm not saying this is something he should be condemned for. More than this, I think it's a natural reaction (as well as, on the other hand, becoming quite and falling into depression). However, big tragedies, great shakes and shocks don't automatically translate into great art. And this is good because otherwise we all could just sit and wait until something hits us very hard.

    So yes, my main claim is that the man is just not trying. The arrangements are bland, there's not a single idea we hadn't heard before and the melodies are just generic. Probably if Starbucks decided to produce and sell folk music, this what it could sound like. Your name, please. Okay, here we go, double Folkachino for Sufjan, have a nice day!

    Speaking of the reactionist approach to this very sensitive topic, I'd pay huge respect to Ray Davies and 'Scattered' song he wrote after his mother's untimely death from cancer (the double tragedy being the man was obliged to deliver 'The Road' live album in some US studio, was told by the doctors had a few more weeks to make it to her deathbed and then she suddenly passed away the next day). I loved it the minute I heard it 17 years ago. But until my own mother passed in a very similar way from cancer I didn't hear a trace of tragedy, which this a bit bittersweet jangle pop number with jolly accordion is built on. Always thought of it a pretty my-girl-left-me type of song. Sigh. Give it one more spin with me:

    You've got a 60 years of pop history to learn from, Sufjan. Please don't neglect it.

    1. Thank God we have you to tell us what was going through Sufjan's head when he made this album. Anytime someone decides to make a record in honor of someone significant in their life who passed away, we should all make sure to run the album by you to determine whether it's offensive and bland or poignant and affecting.

  2. Hiya George. Been reading your reviews for over a decade now but have never left a comment before. Unless you count the two dozen comments I left pseudonymously implying you were a hack for not sufficiently praising Cardiacs' "Sing to God." ;0)

    The thing I love most about your reviews is when you take some indie folkie sad-sack like Bon Iver and cut him down. I know, I know, good negative reviews are less impressive than good positive reviews, since it's way easier to be caustic than it is to explain why you love something... but in the era of, e.g., Anthony Fantano, it's so fun to see someone cut through the hipster hagiography and get to the actual substance of an album. In the case of Suck-jan Stevens, and most artists of his ilk, really, I remain unconvinced there is any. Thank you for vindicating my indifference.

    Now how about some Death Grips reviews? ;0)

  3. I think you are the greatest reviewer of anything (movies, food, music, whatever...ANYTHING) that God has ever bestowed on us. Thank you for all you do. But there are just a couple artists I think you completely miss on, despite your insight and abilities. Sufjan is one of these for me. Every song on here is forever stuck in my soul, and I almost tear up with just the first notes of Death With Dignity. But I admire your attempts to engage and be objective and de gustibus non est disputandum. So keep up the good work!