Sufjan Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell sparkles in radiant simplicity. Sufjan has had an inclination towards the epic over his last few releases. Age of Adz was a magnum opus full of electronic adventure and strings. This new album, however, is comprised of simple folk songs that tell tales surrounding Sufjan’s complicated relationship with his mother Carrie. The album seems to have to do with the problems of intimacy in a digitized world as is reflected in the lyrics of “All of Me Wants All of You”. “You checked your texts while I masturbated”. The texts are reflected on a personal phone, so even though they are sent presumably from outside sources, the consumption of them is self indulgent in the same way as Sufjan’s masturbation. “In the end I feel so used,” Sufjan concludes reflecting the sadness of the textual distraction from normal unmitigated human intimacy.
Carrie & Lowell sonically reflects a desire for this real human intimacy favoring organic sounds over the more experimental pallet of Age of Adz. It seems, however, that Sufjan is flirting with despair as he concludes in “Eugene”, “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you”? There is a futility in the practice of songwriting itself, an endeavor that should prove redemptive. In a certain sense these songs are redemptive. They make us think about the nature of intimacy on a profound level inspiring us towards something greater than masturbation. While a haze of melancholy is always present with Sufjan’s work, earlier efforts of his touched on joy extensively. It seems evident that the pain of family life and the uncomfortable intimacy ensuing from that seems to give rise to this more despondent outlook.
When Sufjan Steven’s is writing about the American landscape or his faith in Christ he seems to overcome his autobiographical demons. But when left to the autobiographical what becomes apparent is Sufjan’s intense desire to escape the confines of his own autobiography and point towards some “other”, indicative of a utopia to come. Through the act of sharing his concerns of intimacy in the digitized age and the lack of real relationships unmitigated, Sufjan presents us with a slew of incredibly well crafted songs that gives solace to each of our own respected loneliness and lack of intimacy, ironically providing a rather intimate sonic experience despite the somber tone. More than anything Sufjan’s choice not to employ his earlier joyous motifs demonstrates just how much he needs them in order to overcome his own sad autobiography.
In “No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross” Christianity is not written of in a redemptive way, like Sufjan has done before, but rather a heavy burden that permeates throughout all the aspects of ones life. There is no shade, no cover from the responsibilities of faith. This is in great contrast to the childlike joy of Christianity heard in Sufjan’s two box set Christmas albums. Maybe that’s why Sufjan took such great comfort in American history with his states albums. By finding inspiration in the great stories of pivotal character in the history of the country, Sufjan finds a way to make his own autobiography seem more important through his inter-textuality with the great figures of America. But with Carrie & Lowell Sufjan comes to us bare, reflecting what it is like to be just one person outside of relation, or in dysfunctional relation. The songs are of such quality, however, that Sufjan joins the cast of American icons on the landscape of history. He is still fractured from the pain of his upbringing but he finds solace in the listener who hears the songs.
Hence Sufjan’s fear of not being heard. To not be heard is to stand outside of relation, which is despair. Through the relationship with the listener there is redemption. It seems as though Sufjan Stevens is heard after all, providing a relationship of reciprocity.