After first hearing Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan (2003) and Seven Swans (2004), I remember unsuccessfully digging for clues about their creator (Wikipedia was only a couple years old, after all). Nothing I found could quite explain the images that felt both fantastical and deeply personal, and I—like the rest of his following—began to project in Stevens a sense of mystery and legend. In the decade since, the fascination has increased with the sadly unrealized quest to document every U.S. state, experimental albums, and multimedia performances that comprise the diverse résumé of a man who invites curiosity about his life because he seems larger-than-life.
Stevens’ latest, Carrie & Lowell, doesn’t escape that curiosity. By now, after the March 31 release of the album, its backstory is familiar. (In case it has eluded you, it borrows its name and cover image from the artist’s mother, who died in 2012, and his stepfather, who now directs Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty). Instead of adding to the artist’s obscure and grand mythology, though, Carrie & Lowell presents him and his music on a personal, human scale. And in doing so, it is his most powerful album so far.
Yes, Sufjan still invokes a distinguished cast of characters, including Perseus and Medusa, Jesus and God—not to mention the monumental theme of coping with loss—but overall, Carrie & Lowell aims at something more intimate: the longing for intimacy itself. This desire for closeness is a refrain throughout the album, beginning with a line in the first track, “Death with Dignity,” and recurring in “Eugene,” a song that pans from the childhood summers that Stevens spent with his mother and stepfather in Oregon to the present, in the aftermath of his mother’s death. Repeated with slight variations, “I just want to be near you” captures the many shades of longing that color Carrie & Lowell: the childlike need for parental intimacy; the hunger to grasp the past; the wish to hold the dead; and, when satisfaction of those desires is impossible, the impulse to bring someone nearer by adopting her habits and traits. The latter is a tragically destructive urge in the case of Stevens and his mother, who suffered from mental illness and bouts of substance abuse (for more on that, here’s a great interview).
In an album saturated with yearning, though, what makes Carrie & Lowell Stevens’ most devastating and beautiful work aren't grand gestures of sentiment; instead it’s the small, subtle touches that enact the theme of closeness. Returning to the bare style of his early work, most of the album consists of acoustic guitar, piano, banjo, and subtle washes of synthesizers. His soft, vulnerable whisper also returns, its ethereality grounded here by articulated consonants and breaths that conjure an image of Stevens singing close to the microphone, his apartment air-conditioner—an ambient sound in many songs—humming in the background during a difficult summer.
Amid meditations on suicide and regret, love and faith, the little intimacies are the most affecting—the sweet pet names in the heartbreaking “Fourth of July,” the mention of his brother’s daughter in “Should Have Known Better,” and Lowell’s nickname in “Eugene,” described in the tender lines, “He couldn’t quite say my first name / He called me ‘Suburu.’” Stevens weaves these vignettes together to create an earnest and delicate story of lived experience that perfectly captures life's quiet, solitary moments. In Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’ mystery and legend have gone, leaving something even more alluring in their place.