Sufjan Stevens used to obscure his life story, offering clues to his listeners, then leading them down dead ends. I remember seeing him more than a decade ago at Dingwalls in London, playing songs from Michigan and Seven Swans, introducing each of them with funny, moving little stories about the events that had inspired them. A year or two later, I saw him playing many of the same songs, and again telling funny, moving, little stories about the events that had inspired them. Completely different funny, moving, little stories. “I’m prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often it’s not fair to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest,” he said earlier this year of his yarn-weaving.
On his seventh “proper” album, Stevens ditched the artifice, stripping himself bare, and paring back his music further than he had since Seven Swans in 2004. Carrie & Lowell was his memorial for his mother, who died in 2012. But it wasn’t a simple tribute. It was a complex and dark record: Carrie had left her family when Stevens was a year old, and most of his contact with her thereafter came when he and his siblings would make summer visits to her in Oregon, where she lived with her second husband Lowell. She suffered from both schizophrenia and depression, and was an alcoholic, and so Stevens’s memories of her on Carrie & Lowell are not the uncomplicated ones of days out, of being cuddled, of being made to feel secure.
“When I was three, maybe four / She left us at the video store,” he sings on Should Have Known Better; Eugene has him repeating at the end of his verse his need “to be near you”; on Fourth of July, devastatingly, he imagines himself as his mother: “Did you get enough love, my little dove / Why do you cry? / And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best / Though it never felt right.” It’s a necessity, then, that all this is prefaced by Stevens granting absolution on the opening song, Death With Dignity: “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you.” As he told Pitchfork, heartbreakingly: “It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us.”
Even when he is not singing about his mother, Stevens doesn’t offer relief. All of Me Wants All of You sees a relationship falling apart, but in the most grimly mundane fashion, without drama or heartbreak: “You checked your texts while I masturbated / Manelich, I feel so used.”
But Carrie & Lowell isn’t a depressing record, that’s the curious thing. Its grief is calm and reflective, rather than raging or desperate. Stevens’s voice, a gentle wisp of a thing, flutters the words in front of you before gently tugging them away as he ascends into a falsetto. The instrumentation is largely acoustic – it’s often just that frail voice and a fingerpicked string instrument (I won’t say guitar, because though it sometimes is a guitar, it often clearly isn’t). Everything is muted; the piano on John the Beloved is so subdued that at first it’s barely recognisable as a piano (Thomas Bartlett, who plays in the Irish-American folk supergroup the Gloaming, and who has recorded as Doveman, is credited as one of the musicians on Carrie & Lowell, and John the Beloved, in particular, shares its mood with Doveman’s sparse and beautiful reimagining of the soundtrack to Footloose, another album inspired by death).
When I reviewed this album on its release, I called it “a delight in every way”. Stevens’s label, Asthmatic Kitty, posted the review on its Facebook page, observing: “By delight he must mean crying all the time.” Well, no. Carrie & Lowell might be sad, it might be the work of a man in pain, but it is too beautiful to cause grief. Grief and depression can result in music that can be cruel, even as it is beautiful – there are moments on Big Star’s third record that sounds like that – but there’s no cruelty on Carrie & Lowell. Instead there’s humanity and acceptance. It’s a record not just of sadness, but wonder. It’s the sound of the space between the stars.