Friday 10 April 2015

Review of 'Carrie and Lowell' by Sufjan Stevens

We’re all gonna die,’ sings Sufjan.

Depression is a fashion accessory in the music industry. You only have to look at the Yung Leans and Lana Del Rays and Earl Sweatshirts of this world (plus every emo band that’s every existed) to realise that it’s cool to be sad. It’s been that way since The Smiths.

This new album from Sufjan Stevens is a reminder of what true, raw tragedy sounds like. Stripping back his sound and spilling out his guts, the American singer-songwriter leads us through the darkest chasms of his psyche following the death of his mother.

There are no bells and whistles, no crocodile tears, no acting. Sufjan lays his emotions bare, delivering his vocals as sweet sighs over percussionless instrumentals consisting largely of a single folksy guitar. The lack of drums gives the album a peacefulness and an ambience that feels like a welcome countryside break from the busy, urban world of dubstep drops and party tunes. The whole Earth seems to stop whilst listening to these songs – particularly ‘The Fourth of July’ in which Sufjan feels at his most exposed. Usually I’d dismiss the line ‘we’re all gonna die’ as gimmicky melodrama, but in this song when Sufjan utters it, describing it as the only thing he’s learnt from his mother’s passing, there’s a true conviction to it that had me feeling chills.

Me whilst listening to 'The Fourth of July'

Shockingly, there is no life lesson on Carrie and Lowell. Sun Kil Moon’s similarly-themed Benji (which I seem unable to stop talking about on this blog) seemed implicitly to be a celebration of life’s tragedies as useful character-defining moments in his life. Sufjan, by contrast, doesn’t seem to have any positive advice to give his fellow sufferers. Track 7, ‘The Only Thing’, is borderline suicidal (he goes so far as to question tearing out his own eyes!). ‘Faith in reason, I spent my life playing dumb’ seems to be his only solution, giving his listeners some small solace that he isn’t about to slit his wrists any time soon.

There are also some flecks of humour in amongst the bleakness that stop Carrie and Lowell from being a total downer. In recounting past memories, he tells the tale of his old swimming instructor who couldn’t pronounce his name, and hence resigned to calling him ‘Subaru’ – a moment that did make me chuckle. Sufjan’s efforts to entertain with rich imagery also gives the album much needed colour amongst the greyness. References to folklore and mythology are particularly prevalent throughout the record. There are vampires and dragons, mentions of Medusa and Pegasus, references to Perseus and Poseidon. Casper the ghost even make a cameo.

Subaru Stevens looking mythical

As described when featuring the single ‘No Shade In The Shadow of The Cross’ on this blog, this use of folklore and mythology seems to me to be an attempt to escape the reality of his depression: ‘Amethyst and flowers on the table/ is it real or a fable?’ That, and it also spruces up the landscape, which instrumentally is very barren.

In fact, this is my only gripe with the record – sonically it’s stripped back, but almost too far. Illinois really showed the instrumental talent and melodic diversity that Sufjan could bring to the table, sporting flutes and string sections and big horns. This record is all lonely subtle guitars, which is pleasant for the first few tracks but a little stale towards the end. I’m not saying Sufjan should have added drums or brass sections like there were in Illinois – that would totally take away from the raw vibe. However, a few bare piano numbers could have added some diversity. The slow synth passages feel like attempts to vary things up, but most of them are a little too samey. The interlude at the end of ‘Drawn To The Blood’ sticks out as the only moment where Sufjan tries to get in the listener’s face instrumentally. Subtlety has its charm, but it also has its limits.

Lyrically, Carrie and Lowell has enough substance to make up for this, and if you’re one of the few naysayers who thinks that this album is boring simply because of the instrumentals, then you’re clearly not focusing your ears in the right direction. There’s a reason this album is getting such high praise from critics and that’s because the words coming out of the Sufjan’s mouth have more heart and brain behind them than most artists you’re likely to hear this year.