Interstellar is our new series where we introduce you to artists that are not as well-known, but that deserve all the love because of how talented they are.
Sufjan Stevens is a musician currently residing in New York City, but was born in Detroit and raised in Michigan. Geographically, his residence is an important theme in his seventh album release Carrie & Lowell. His career began in 2000 with the release of his second solo album A Sun Came pioneering the thematic symbols that would become notorious in his music, as he experimented with Middle Eastern instrumentation. His January 2015 album Carrie & Lowell developed on his already folky and acoustic style of music.
The album Carrie & Lowell is a catharsis for Stevens – soulful and cohesive it laments on the death of Sufjan’s mother who he had an increasingly troubled, but loving, relationship with. After his mother Carrie married Lowell, the multi-instrumental artist saw her sparingly as she was diagnosed with the mental disorders schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and also suffered with substance abuse.
Thematically, Sufjan uses mass amounts of religious references in his music. Although his name is derived from pre-historic Islam, he is a Christian and this is evident in his albums. Not only do the lyrics make reference to religion, but the production of Carrie & Lowell sounds like it was created in a church as opposed to a studio setting, all efflorescent and holy, as if he is singing at a funeral.
This use of religious imagery is evident in the opening track Death with Dignity with semantics surrounding the imagery of death, religion and prayer in Sufjan’s poetic verses “amethyst and flowers on the table / is it real or a fable?” questioning and quantifying the story-like nature of a relationship, while the repetitive lyrics “What a sad song you sing for the dead” structurally creates the mood of nostalgia that imbeds itself into the mind as an imagery of a sad funeral party or a missing childhood.
This kaleidoscope of feelings towards the human that gave birth to you and then merely wasn’t much of a mother creates a conflicting disarray of emotion on the album. The lyrics “I’m afraid to be near you” and “you’ll never see us again” sang against more emotional lyrics on the track Fourth of July – which is the story of the last time he saw his mother in hospital as she was dying from stomach cancer. The song is a conversation between Carrie, and the unconditional love between the two enveloped through regret. Perhaps it would have made a good closing of the album. There’s also the anecdote of being left in a video store in the next track Should Have Known Better, that this is such a vivid remembrance, but also hazy with longing and memories of the inevitability of growing up but never forgetting fractured childhoods. The repetition of “be my fantasy” is syntactic of the “fable” theme.
Although the album Carrie & Lowell is sad, it is also strangely calming to listen to in the early hours of dawn or at the darkest hour or on late night drives. Since the album is so clearly cathartic for the singer, in turn, it does the same for the listener. It’s like laying someone to rest for the final time, a little eerie but also peaceful and erratic, especially when the last song on the album doesn’t spell closure.
Moving away from the thematic concept of death and religion, Sufjan also makes reference to homosexuality in subtle hints, more explicit in the track All of Me Wants All of You which seemingly breaks from the albums main focus and instead sings about romantic love that is losing itself “you check you texts while I masturbated” is a beautiful line about lost communication and connection and loneliness, but we’re just as quickly bought back to the Godly imagery of “Poseidon” and “revelation.” Also, on his perhaps most popular album Illinois, released in 2005, he sings “touching his back with my hand / I kiss him / I see the wasp on the length of his arm” the pronouns are pretty liberal and open about being in love with your best friend.
As Carrie & Lowell develops with each song it becomes a narrative style album, telling the story of his siblings and their lives: “my brother had a daughter / the beauty she brings” references time and moving forward through childhood to adulthood and then childhood again, almost cyclical. A young child is so innocent and fragile; they have the potential to become anything.
Carrie & Lowell is an album to get completely lost in. At times, it’s like he’s questioning his belief in religion like it is a fable. However, this being one Stevens most recent and one his most popular work of art does not exclude his talent from his previous album, which follows similar concepts and production styles, but experiment with different instrumentation.