Some time back, my son talked me into writing a review of the Sufjan Steven’s album Illinois, as it was celebrating it’s 10th birthday. Much to his dismay, I wasn’t nearly as fond of that piece of work as he was, and my review reflected that. He was moved to write a rebuttal of my review, which I posted on this blog.
Sufjan’s latest album, Carrie and Lowell, came out last year. My son, citing a major contrast in style between this and Stevens’ previous works – including Illinois – encouraged me to give Mr. Stevens another try.
Here we go.
Carrie and Lowell was released on March 15th of last year. It has been named one of the best albums of the year by a number music publications, including the top spot on HMV’s (a music retailer in the UK) list. It is highly regarded among critics, with many claiming it to be his best work. It is a heartfelt reminiscence of his largely absentee mother whom he recently lost to cancer.
Just as my son said, it is very different in style from Illinois. Shedding the excessive instrumentation and general noisiness of his previous work – my main complaint against Illinois – Stephens strips down to a single instrument and his voice on most of Carrie and Lowell.
The result is an intensely intimate feel befitting the focus of the album. The lyrics, too, are extremely personal with the artist sharing feelings of anger, hurt, forgiveness and, most of all, love.
I do find Carrie and Lowell to be more palatable than Illinois, but I am not ready to jump on the Sufjan Stevens bandwagon. I’ve listen to this album several times over and have found nothing that makes me want to listen again. So what’s my complaint this time?
First, as I mentioned in my Illinois review, is Stevens’ soft-spoken style. His barely-above-a-whisper singing voice is constant throughout Carrie and Lowell. It’s okay for a song or two, but it wears on me beyond that.
Next, this album is just gloomy. Now, I don’t mind a sad song. A good sad song expresses that melancholy feeling in such a way that seems to pluck a cord between your heart and the artist’s, and creates the realization that someone else understands. But Carrie and Lowell is just dreary and makes me feel nothing.
Also, critics laud Stevens’ prowess as a poet – and rightfully so. But the thing about poetry, as with any art, is that what moves some (or even most), doesn’t move all. I’ll admit that there are passages that are clear in their meaning and tug at the heart. From “Death with Dignity:”
I forgive you, mother, I can hear you,
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end
Yes, every road leads to an end
But there are just as many that leave me scratching my head. From “The Only Thing:”
The only thing that keeps me from driving this car
Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night
Signs and wonders: Perseus aligned with the skull
Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all
True that the words are personal, but a little too personal sometimes. He shares experiences that I don’t relate to and feel no connection. Like an inside joke, you really had to be there. From “All of Me Wants All of You:”
Found myself on Spencer’s Butte
Traced your shadow with my shoe
Empty outline changed my view
Now all of me thinks less of you
Finally, there is little to no diversity on this album. Even the cadence changes only minimally from song to song. I suppose it would be unfair to expect an upbeat song or two given the theme. But all the songs drag on at a slow but constant pace, adding to its gloominess.
Obviously, I am in the minority when it comes to estimating Sufjan Stevens’ place in the music world. This could be a generational thing, but the sample size is just too small to make that determination. I can say without a doubt that I don’t know of anyone my age that counts themselves among Sufjan’s fans; but I can also say that I don’t know of anyone my age that even knows who he is – much less is familiar with his music.
On the positive side, I recognize and even appreciate Stevens’ artistic abilities and there’s a certain sweetness that runs through this album and gives it continuity. And there’s not a song on the album that doesn’t have some merit. As a whole, it comes in a couple of notches above Illinois, but there are just too many negatives for me to overcome in order to truly enjoy Carrie and Lowell.
(not very Fun) Facts:
- Carrie is Stevens’ mother, who dealt with bipolar and other disorders and left the family when he was very young.
- Lowell is Carrie’s subsequent husband during a time when Stevens was able to spend some time with this mother. I assume this is who is singing about when he says: “The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name.”
- My son’s rebuttal to my Illinois review was, and still is, the most cerebral post this blog has ever seen.
Parental: There are a couple of lyrics that the listener might find objectionable, which is a little surprising for Stevens.
Here’s the album on Spotify. Listen and let me know what you think – especially if you’re over 50!
Here’s a video from Stevens’ record label (Asmatic Kitty) featuring the song “Should Have Known Better”
all images copyright Sufjan Stevens
You can shop for his music and much more on Amazon.