Sufjan Stevens' Mastery of the Moment on Carrie & Lowell

Music Features Sufjan Stevens
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There are those who disagree, but I prefer the version of Sufjan Stevens that is stripped-down, raw, nakedly emotional. I’m willing to admit that it might be as simple as a failure to appreciate the technical skill apparent in an album like Age of Adz—I’m not a musician, and even after reading about the effort and ability that go into creating something so intricate, the achievement will only resonate for me on an intellectual level. It won’t reach me the same way that a simpler track like “Flint” will, with its relatively bare production and classic melody. And while I love the swelling choruses and instrumental interludes on Illinois, I find them most affecting when they exist in contrast to the breakdown—the moment when everything stops, and Sufjan’s voice emerges accompanied by just one or two instruments, to confess.

It’s a bit like the difference between “clever” and “funny.” It’s possible for me to appreciate a writer who weaves layers of irony into a text, or a comedian who can point out the absurdities in some political policy, but there’s no guarantee that it will make me laugh—that involves something more elemental and unpredictable. (As an example—I loved this 15-minute bit from the Australian comedian Jim Jefferies on gun control in America, but the part that made me laugh hardest was a throwaway joke about a thesaurus and a dictionary…start at the 9:20 mark to see what I mean.)

There are moments that stagger you for reasons that are buried deep within your psyche, and were perhaps spawned in forgotten childhood hours, or were always there in the chemicals and synapses of your brain. Even at his simplest, Sufjan Stevens is more complex than the vast majority musicians—he is a legitimate genius (at least I think so), and even his transparent songs contain a confluence of creative material that is difficult to identify, much less analyze—but the version of the artist that touches me is the one we see on Carrie & Lowell. I won’t pretend to be right or wrong, but this is an album that produces a sensation of lightness in my head, and the rush of feeling that follows.

There is nobody who can change the mood of a song, within a song, like Sufjan. The famous example is Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, where the first half is a pepped-up tribute to the Colombian Exposition and the city of Chicago itself, and an instrumental bridge gradually dampens the mood for the more personal second half, which Sufjan begins by singing, “I cried myself to sleep last night.” On Carrie & Lowell’s second track, “Should Have Known Better,” we see the same division. In this case, a synthesizer separates the two halves, as it did on Predatory Wasps of the Palisades, but the subtle change here introduces a redemptive theme. Lyrically, the dismal sense of loss persists at first (“nothing can be changed, the past is still the past”), but it gives way to hope—”my brother had a daughter..the beauty that she brings, illumination”—as Sufjan is joined by background singers. The hope is not completely ascendant; there is more ambiguity in this album than any of his past works, and his mother’s death haunts every song. But there is a sense of striving—of forcing himself to cope through the misery.

Stevens also excels at contrast, when the music and the lyrics paint with opposite emotional tones. It’s less common on Carrie & Lowell than Illinois—the melancholy is mostly pervasive here, as on Michigan and Seven Swans—but “Should Have Known Better” effectively uses the device, as does “All of Me Wants All of You,” with a faint horn echoing the chorus as he sings of himself as a ghost and expresses his longing for someone he has lost. We can see the same at the start of “The Only Thing,” when a soft, almost pleasant melody carries the lyrics of despair—”do I care if I survive this?” he sings. And just as on Illinois’ “Casimir Pulaski Day,” he masterfully uses the contrast of death and holiday to add layers of pain in the wonderful, heartbreaking “Fourth of July.”

On “The Only Thing,” lightness eventually gives away to the technique we saw several times on Illinois—the music drops out almost completely, and Sufjan emerges with his devastating falsetto. “Should I tear my eyes out now?” As the chorus continues, his voice becomes a whisper, and there is no better showcase of how Steven’s greatest instrument of all, his voice, spans an almost unbelievable range of emotion. When the other instruments set him up—when the beautiful collision of sounds fades, and the vocals come forward—it feels like the perfect realization of his talent, and the truth in the eye of the storm. This is why I called it a “confession” above. The chaos dissipates, and the heartbeat of the song is clarified—this is what matters. This is the part that will break you.

“John My Beloved” has the least adornment of any track on the record, and it’s the second-longest track at 5:05. Sufjan is asked to carry it almost by himself, and as he sings of “stumbling words at the bar,” his voice also seems to stumble—a vulnerability that stands out even on what is one of the most vulnerable records I’ve ever heard. I wonder, while listening to this song, if Sufjan could explain how he reaches whatever emotional recesses in order to sound perfectly broken. You can imagine how maudlin another artist would look if he tried something similar—it’s quite a risk, because one false moment ruins the entire effect. You can’t see behind the curtains. The entire song depends on whether we believe in Sufjan; that despite the artifice of writing and recording a song, he’s tapping into something visceral that we can trust, and that is meaningful. My guess is that he wouldn’t be able to explain it, since it’s a fusion of expression and lyrics and melody that can’t be measured by anything except instinct, which is itself immeasurable.

At five minutes, the song also runs the risk of becoming a bore, but the chorus contains one of the album’s greatest melodic turn. Two lines into the first refrain, the words “I am a man with a heart that offends with its lonely and greedy demands” fall and rise unpredictably, and the effect is almost shocking, considering the muted tone of the larger song. He’s smart enough to let this surprising melody carry the most important lines of the song. “I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head,” he sings in the second chorus, and the third finishes the theme: “Jesus I need you, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head.” Each of the three refrains starts and ends with only slight variations on what came before, but there is total variety in the centerpiece—he lures us in, and this is where he tells the story. Those three lines express self-loathing, total love, and a plea for rescue. They are a microcosm of the larger story, both of the song and the album itself.

It’s easy to forget the microcosms when it comes to Stevens’ work. He is such a large figure in music, and creates on a scale that seems nearly bombastic, even at his most melancholy. It’s a different sort of problem—normally we can’t see the forest for the trees, but in Sufjan’s case, the big picture is often so stunning that we miss the ingredients. They’re worth noticing. You can certainly absorb his talent from a distance—it’s undeniable—but to narrow the focus, and to catch even a glimpse of how something so stunning is made, is to see the genius in the details.