Kendrick Lamar's new album now has a release date, but Sufjan beat it out the door. With Panda Bear already in our hands, this was definitely my most anticipated non-hip hop album in 2015 (if we are to maintain skepticism regarding the Radiohead rumours). No matter how far I stray from indie rock, (or really, any music that primarily involves guitars), there's some artists that I can never ignore. Like, if Joanna Newsom actually releases an album, I'll take a week off school. Anything tangentially related to Animal Collective will have me f5ing every site through sleepless nights. And so it is too, with Sufjan.
I first got really into him around when Illinois came out and everyone was freaking out. I was young enough to actually buy into the feasibility of the 50 states project, and I feel like I maybe preemptively gave him some "greatest discography of all time" award in my head. I remember feeling some anxiety when The Avalanche came out, thinking, geez, you really need to get going on these states! But then when I reached back and really listened to Seven Swans, I realized that I didn't care at all what he did, what he called it... everything was good!
Since then, each new project has been extremely rewarding, as has each trip into his past projects. He's the sort of artist where my favorite albums and tracks keep shifting... For most of the time, it's a duel between the two state albums, with Michigan perhaps more often taking the lead. But sometimes I'll listen to "Impossible Soul" three times in a row, and wonder how such a long song can feel so addictive, and really wonder what else music could possibly do, and then realize that a whole album preceded it and think, oh, that must be the best one. And sometimes I think the same thing about the title track of All Delighted People - either one.
Right now, I'm back in a Seven Swans phase, and it feels like it's the real right choice - but they all always do. Regardless, it feels like the most appropriate choice for the monumental occasion of today. We're seeing a return to the simple, acoustic songwriting, the stuff that really anchored down his more experimental projects. Like, the sections that bookend The Age of Adz... doesn't it feel like those were maybe the real heart of the album? The whole point, maybe? That the whole project was to shift the attitude of "Futile Devices" to the ending section of "Impossible Soul" - that realization of happiness?
Okay, that might be a limiting reading, but thinking about the overall "project" of Sufjan Stevens albums is pretty fascinating. Unlike a lot of artists, where there's a sort of unilateral emotional desire, a lot of Sufjan songs start with other sort of "goal conditions"... he's out to tell some sort of historical story, or some biblical event. Sometimes with a sort of "moral" to them, that he imparts to a poetic speaker that seems distinct from himself. Even simple storytelling songs, like the much-celebrated "Casimir Pulaski Day" seem... I dunno, composed? Like, he wrote this story, and then wrote a song about the story, rather than it actually happening to him.
But even if the actual impulse to songwriting is always one step removed from him, from some romantic-esque "spontaneous overflow of emotion", the two steps of separation from him is even more interesting. Like: you can easily see how going from "I want to write a song about someone's ordination, and have the ambiguity of the term and such" becomes "Vito's Ordination Song", possibly more easily than you could, say, see how "I feel sad" becomes I See A Darkness for Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. But the question of why did Sufjan want to write this song? Why did he want to tell this story? This is where his personality really emerges into the music, and, although masked by his obvious intention, it is intriguing and fascinating and wonderful.
And, of course, the question of "how much did all this stuff really happen to him?" keeps coming up, and although on one level it doesn't really matter, it's also pretty enthralling. Like... sometimes you feel like you can tell, right? And that's a pretty amazing feeling to examine and try to break down. But sometimes you're way off, like... after reading this fantastic interview, I'm now convinced that "Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!" is pretty much a factual account of an episode in his life and his actual thoughts on it now... I never would have guessed that.
All of these questions and feelings seem to come to a head in this new album, where he, for the first time, is tackling his personal and family history. Whereas before his own involvement with the "project" seemed obscured, sometimes tangential, and often elusive, now he put his parents' faces right on the cover. And he's now resisting the very idea of narrativization upon which all his albums have been based!! Okay maybe that didn't sound as sensible or hype as I pictured it. You should just read the interview, he explains it himself way better than I could. But now... this is already way too much preamble, we have to get going with this!! I think I'm almost a little scared to hear it... but I can't really get any more ready...
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
1. Death with Dignity
Ahhh, yes, this is all I need, this is exactly everything I need. Ooh, I like when has this sort of masked tone... I don't know how to describe it. It's like his breath but not his voice is amplified. "I don't know where to begin", and then... well, he's beginning anyways. That's a sort of nice idea. Wow at 1:00 his voice rockets right up into the falsetto, beautiful. All these haunting little images, and then "A friend is a friend, and we all know how this will end". "What is that song you sing for the dead?" Oh god, this is getting sad already. I'm turning it up a bit. We gotta have a SAD BANGER sorta day. Ooooh the piano... the piano is so nice... so close and echoey, I love that sort of tone. Maybe Sufjan is a piano-tone god too. Oh man already I am seeing connections with things he talked about in the interview... this is gonna be brutal, I think. This is gonna be a crier, a cry-all-dayer. Ooooh, and the ending... how can he decide that he gets to do something like this? lol it clipped a little bit on my setup. But seriously how does he know it'll be beautiful? And the guitar bending a bit like surf rock... *
2. Should have known better
Ahh, it feels like we're hearing this next to a stream in a meadow. "My black shroud, holding down our feelings", wow. "I shoulda wrote a letter, and grieved what I happened to grieve", jesus man wow. Oh man... this is like, actual straightup storytelling from his life. I didn't think it would be this explicit. And then this "be my fantasy" and a gorgeous movement that really just sounds like the fantasy of a song. This idea of... not allowing himself to grieve... that the black shroud is masking his sadness, not his true sadness. And the very idea of these memories staying with him through all these decades. And WOW okay is this a little chiptune sort of melody here? What the hell? This is so good... it's in some weird spot between acoustic and electronic. "Don't back down"... "My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, that illumination"... oh man, this is like... his actual exploration of these feelings, laid bare for us. Ah, the way it was sort of picking up there, I did not expect this sort of outro... big heavy almost rusty-sounding chello scraping... I love it though, oh man. *
3. All of me wants all of you
Wow, how can you describe this sort of melody... "Sad jamming"? "She checked her texts while I masturbated", this is like... the Sufjan Stevens version of a Why? album. "Now all of me thinks less of you", this sort of... speaking to body/mind dualities and splits... Talking about intimate moments... "In this light you look like Poseidon, I'm just a ghost you walk right through", what is he talking about here? Ahh, the way the two vocal parts disagree with each other at the end... Oh god, at the outros he keeps going like "okay now we'll go angelic-mode by making everything echoey and bringing out the harmonies", how does it KEEP WORKING? How does he know? And wow now the actual outro, these swelling strings... so nice... *
4. Drawn to the Blood
This is kinda intense... both in title and form... "The flight of a one-winged dove"... "How, how did this happen?"... "The strength of his arm, my lover caught me off guard"... oh man... there's a sort of "hidden" feeling Sufjan gives some incidents, especially violent ones, and it's so haunting that it feels traumatic. Oh man, addressing God directly? Oh God, and not even the Big Sean voice. "My prayer has always been love", oh my god... Ohhhhhh man, it feels almost like a dialogue, between these two elements - the "angelic" and "mortal" parts, if I could call them that. i seriously don't get how someone could make something like this. how it could be devised and assembled. It feels like it would have to have spilled off of a mountain somewhere. *
Lemon trees, lemon yogurt, dropped the ashtray on the floor. This seems like a happier song, maybe... I'm not quite sure who Eugene is, but this seems like... man... I really hope I'm not "betrayed" on this song. This just seems like happy nostalgic gentle memories of a kind fatherly figure in his life. "What's left is only bittersweet, for the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me/Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away, what's the point of singing songs, if they'll never hear you" ;;;;;;;;_____________;;;;;;;;;; *
6. Fourth of July
And here we start in the "angelic" mode, having not used it in the previous song. Starting with death and America... "What could I have said to raise you from the dead, could I have been the sky on the Fourth of July?"... there's a certain sort of primality in the songwriting here, a sort of easiness to the lyrics... no pretense, no illusions, "We're all gonna die", wow yup. And those warm low strings, like a whale swimming by... Oh my god, is he writing from the perspective of his mother here? Did I hear that line right? Jesus oh man... All these little pet names, all these simple rhymes... there's a childishness to it all, and when you think about why, it's like... so obvious and sad. Ahhh, and then this rumbling at the end... it feels like the childhood "rumbling silence" of awareness... but I certainly don't have time to explain that, or try to explain that and realize that I can't, right now... **
7. The Only Thing
Ah, this is a very nice and active song. Yeah see... it's why he doesn't crash his car into the canyon! An uplifting song! "I wonder, did you love me at all?" Holy shit these descriptions of suicide are pretty explicit... I feel like this album should have some sort of "trigger warning" that the people who need such a thing are awareness of. I'm serious about that. "Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow. Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow"... "I wanna save you from your sorrow", and then again, this overflow of sheer beauty. "The only reason why I continue at all: faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb", hoooooly God... "Do I care if I survive this? Bury the dead where they're found". Oh man... Maaaaan... *
8. Carrie & Lowell
Ahh, counting off the intro. This is the Sufjan I remember. Ah, this song was in the "trailer", I remember. So beautiful, such an intricate melody, such an intricate memory. It feels at once drifting, and stuccatio, and determined... "Under the pear tree, shadows and light conspiring"... "Cottage grove shade, invite me", "Lord of the Ancient Waters", like Poseidon from earlier? Oh man, this is so beautiful in idea and execution... I cannot separate the idea of his writing the song from the song he wrote. "She breaks my arm"? Oh no wait what? Oh no. I really believed this was one of the happy ones, until... ***
9. John My Beloved
Ooh, this feels very "blue", very "deep"... muted, distant... I don't know... The way he connects these poetic images with things like "my order of fries" is so enthralling and strange. "Covered in lines, the fossils I find, have they no life of their own?" "I am a man with a heart that offends with its lonely and greedy demands, there's only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking, I'm dead". Oh... Okay. If you... say so... "I love you more than the world can contain in it's lowly and ramshackle head", oh my goood god. I'm stunned, I'm only not-stunned enough to say that I'm stunned. "And when I am dead, come visit my bed, my fossil is bright in the sun"... Ah, and then the sound of his breath at the end... *
10. No shade in the shadow of cross
Ah, the single, I listened to this probably > 50 times in total. It feels... pretty different in context, maybe. I think before I assumed this was like... in some sort of "speaker", in some sort of "project context", I didn't think he'd be this raw, that he'd be this exposed... This is him, this is actually him, I think... And the way the "angelic" and "human" modes synthesize here... "There's blood on that blade, fuck me I'm falling apart" still cripples me, no matter how many times I've heard it. **
11. Blue Bucket of Gold
Oh god, I don't think I'm ready for this. I have almost no thoughts or feelings at this point. "Raise your right hand, tell me you want me in your life... Or raise your red flag, just when I want you in my life"... this synthesis of a project of memory and these painful, "modern" relationship stories, and being unclear where one begins and one ends... There's a sort of hymnal quality to the melody here, I think... I can see singing it in church, it has that straightforwardness to it. Okay maybe not the ghostly wailing around 2:20, I dunno if we have anyone who can pull that off. Ah, and we're fading out... into some new... oh man... this is the same "angelic mode" of the first track I think... like we're retreating out of his dream now, out of his memory... but it's swelling unprecedented... And now new notes are coming in, like streamers of gold... before now diminishing to a quiet rumbling warmth that feels like bed. **
I don't even know what to say after all that. On one level, it's sorta what I expected, y'know? Like... mostly acoustic guitar and singing, and lots of digressions into "hyper-beautiful" "transcendent" sections. The lyrical content spoke to his personal history and present, with no sense of veil or persona. There was a sense of almost "failure"... failure to fully explicate his choices and the events that shaped him in a narrative that he could give to a separate, objective, history. And that moment of "failure", where a question goes unanswered, or an emotion unexplained, coincides with the movement of the music into the "transcendental".
Like, I think, if you had forced me to outline what I thought the content of the album would be after I read that interview, I would have guessed something pretty close to the above. But I wouldn't have come close to understanding just how it would feel to hear something like this. I don't think there's any point comparing it to his past projects - there's an entirely different approach at play, and thus differences of scale and structure are inevitable. And yet, you can't help but think this is the same Sufjan, the same man that you've been listening to for (in my case) about a decade now, the man that you feel in some sense that you really know, and it's not like the content here shocks me, but it feels bad, man, it really feels powerfully bad to hear him talk like this. It really speaks to my deep fear that... when you start to really get to know someone, there's always a moment where you realize that they're actually far sadder than they actually appeared to be, that they, too, carried a secret pain and suffering within them.
But, y'know, if that's how it is... that's how you have to do it. You can't look away. You can't retreat. There's no shade. And unlike so many texts on these themes, Sufjan's consistent sincerity, honesty, and humility forces you to consider everything... there's no chance that this doesn't apply to you, there's no sense that it's performed or invalid, there's no way that it'll dodge the key question, and thus end up only tangential to your own "project" of emotional realization. This is, basically, the real shit, and we're going all out.
And yet omg there's such a sense of restraint on this album, this sense of like... you know what he's capable of, you know how grand and rich he can be, so the minimalism speaks to like... not really a stripping down, but to a sort of "empty core", a sense that this is all he can do with this material, that this is the only way he can convey these ideas. There's no sense that an orchestra can bloom from this material, and there's no sense that it can be anything more than it is. Same with the lyrics: the poetic all comes from the visceral, from that which he has seen and experienced, presented in the exact way it imprinted itself upon him. There's no pretense, nothing forced, no plays toward cleverness or ingenuity.
This really is something special. It feels like the album he's always wanted, perhaps needed, to make. But there's also the sense that he was only ready now, that only now is he in a place in his career and life to be able to say these things, to have these realizations. It really feels like an album that bridges some key revelations and reinterpretations on his part, that, in the process of creating it, he really learned something. I'm not sure what exactly it is yet, but I am very excited to try to find out.