Truth be told, the fuss over Sufjan Stevens’ music has always mystified me. Sure, some of the Christmas songs are clever, but most of his work comes across as self-consciously precious. His 2007 orchestral commission “The BQE,” for example, was billed as a “symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” which is enough to make even Robert Moses roll his eyes.
Then there’s Stevens’ so-called 50 States project, perhaps his most acclaimed work, which comprised a pair of smirking travelogue albums infused with a toxic post-9/11 hipster irony: the best song on either “Michigan” or “Illinois” was “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a lilting, whispery piano ditty about the part-time clown, sexual predator and serial killer, who murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men in Chicago between 1972-78.
Stevens’ new album, though, stands well apart. Written after the death of his mother in 2012, “Carrie & Lowell” is a thoughtful, vulnerable and at times deeply moving attempt to make sense of losing a parent who was absent for most of the singer’s life. Like most of Stevens’ earlier work, it’s a hushed, folky album, with murmured vocals over acoustic guitars dressed up here and there with piano and subtle orchestrations. Its real strengths, though, are Stevens’ introspection, and his honesty. There’s no sense here that he’s peeking over his shoulder to see who’s watching — in fact, he performs these songs as if he is singing them solely for himself.
And he might be. Parts of the album are about the scant amount of time he spent with his mother and stepfather on summer trips to the West Coast. The confusion and hurt that her sporadic involvement in his life must have provoked are heartbreakingly present on “Eugene” when he sings, “I just wanted to be near you.” His literal loss puts him at a figurative loss as well: Stevens spends much of “Carrie & Lowell” asking questions to which he does not know, and isn’t expecting to find, the answers. “Sitting at the bed with the halo at your head/ Was it all a disguise, like junior high?” he sings on “Fourth of July.” He’s more direct on “Eugene” when he asks, “What’s the point of singing songs/ If they never will hear you?”
Stevens’ questions extend to religion. An avowed Christian in a genre that views such convictions with skepticism, if not outright suspicion (The Atlantic explains further), he is forthright here about the tug between faith and doubt. His narrator seeks shelter from the Lord on “John My Beloved,” and wonders on “Drawn to the Blood” why his prayer for love has been rewarded with pain, asking, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Even as he asks, he surely knows that a lack of response is the response. Stevens doesn’t say whether that knowledge is a comfort or not, but he seems to find solace of a sort in the opening track, “Death With Dignity.” After acknowledging his own uncertainty, weakness and regret, you can almost see him straighten up when he sings, “I got nothing to prove.” There’s no artifice or affectation, just a singer and storyteller at his most poignant and powerful.