Sufjan’s most beautiful record to date

Devon Wilson

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Native Michigander Sufjan Stevens has been releasing soft spoken and extremely intimate music to critical acclaim for a number of years, but with his most recent release, “Carrie & Lowell,” Sufjan has taken a step back from the grandiose theatrics of his older materials for a simpler approach at songwriting.

With albums as ambitious as the state themed “Greetings From Michigan” and “Illinois,” it is easy to classify Sufjan as a man with a vision in mind when he sets out to work. “Carrie & Lowell” is named after his parents and even features a faded picture of the two as the album’s artwork, making the idea behind the album apparent from the very start.

Of all of Sufjan’s personal lyrics and themes, none seem as forward and upfront as “Carrie & Lowell.” Songs such as “Should Have Known Better” and “Eugene” reference specific moments from his childhood in a storytelling fashion. The memories of his past clearly left an impact that Sufjan has never been able to shake, but as he sings remorsefully on “Should Have Known Better,” “nothing can be changed/ the past is still the past.”

The album’s instrumentation is nothing new for Sufjan; however, it has never been as bare-boned as it appears on “Carrie & Lowell.” Intricate guitar plucks back Sufjan’s dreamy and lonely vocals with little interruption, a major difference from his older works which focused on large, orchestral pieces with a dramatic feeling more similar to a Broadway show than a lone musician. This is not to say, however, that “Carrie & Lowell” is a standard guitar-driven folk album, for it is orchestral in its own right. Strings, angelic choirs and keyboards all contribute to the elaborate and beautiful songs Sufjan crafts. The dramatic presentation of these elements is what has been toned down significantly.

“Carrie & Lowell” has a level of subtlety which stands far above the rest of Sufjan’s relatively large discography. Divine vocal backings and gorgeous strings blend together seamlessly to create the world of sound behind Sufjan’s voice. The mixture of instruments all combine in a way where none sound more prominent than another and the transitions between them are almost difficult to notice until well after it has already occurred. The soft keyboards toward the end of “Should Have Known Better” are drastically different from the acoustic guitar which opens it and yet feels just as appropriate a choice.

With such a consistently outstanding discography, it is difficult to imagine Sufjan could ever lose his spot as one of the most brilliant song writers of the last several years. However “Carrie & Lowell” is a new level of excellence, even for him.

5/5

Listen to “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” below.