“Every road leads to an end,” sings Sufjan Stevens on the opening track of his first album in five years, and the cloud of death really does hang heavy over this record. Carrie & Lowell is named after Stevens’ mother and stepfather and was recorded in the period following the former’s death, and like Bjork’s recent knockout Vulnicura, its inspiration and focus has come from a place of intense personal pain from its author. The great miracle of this album is the level of beauty it finds in such a dark place.

Maybe it’s not such a surprise. Before the all-out explosion of The Age Of Adz, Stevens had proven himself more than capable of writing gorgeous music, whether armed with a solitary banjo or by conducting ornate arrangements with brass and string sections. Compared to previous work, this album initially feels modest in its ambitions, but over time it proves to be a collection of small, perfectly formed moments that add up to an immense, often sublime whole.


It’s not as if Stevens’ experimental edge has been completely dulled either. The second half of the stunning “Should Have Known Better” combines the subtlest smattering of metronomic electronics with a backdrop of choir-like vocals that sound unmistakably like a Sufjan melody. The guitar work on Carrie & Lowell is also regularly intricate and superb, although “Drawn To The Blood” actually comes closer to recalling early Elliott Smith with its passive-aggressive strumming and quiet rage.

At times that rage and sadness boils over into a self-loathing nihilism, and both “The Only Thing” and “John My Beloved” are simultaneously compelling and near unbearable in their intimacy and weight. On the latter, when Stevens sings, “There’s only a shadow of me / In a manner of speaking I’m dead,” there is a sense of loss that cannot be fixed. The album is a catalog of regret from a man whose relationship with his mother seems complex and contradictory, and with that as its central theme, its universal connection is self-evident.

Carrie & Lowell is always a rich work, though. Like many of the songs here, “All Of Me Wants All Of You” begins with a strong melody before drifting off into the ether as Stevens draws from a deep well of contemplation. On “Eugene,” he sings, “What’s left is bittersweet for the rest of my life / Admitting the best is behind me,” sounding not so much vulnerable as broken. There is certainly a contradictory pleasure in hearing Stevens in such inspired form and realizing what it took to get him there, but as much as any artist of his generation, Stevens approaches the album format with deep seriousness, understanding the potential sense of permanence that the album brings.

Carrie & Lowell is one person’s attempt to find solace in contradiction and grief, the sound of a broken man trying to put himself back together with no guarantee that he ever can. A lot of us have been there in some way or another. One of the main aims of art is to reveal something about the human condition, who we are and how we came to be. In that sense, the generosity of Stevens as an artist is extraordinary and has led to what may well prove to be the most enduring album of his career. Not only is his latest album a work of art, it is a truly noble one.

Tickets are currently on sale for Sufjan Stevens shows at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in June.

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