I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a piece of music. Sanford Sylvan singing “Mache dich mein Herze rein” in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion conducted by the late Blanche Moyse in Vermont? Bernadette Peters singing “Losing My Mind” in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies on Broadway? Could be.
I write “piece of music” advisedly, for Sufjan Stevens‘s “Carrie & Lowell” is not just an album of songs. Like such previously praised albums as Björk’s “Vulnicura” and Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador,” “Carrie & Lowell” is a song cycle, unified in theme, and tracing a continuous musical and emotional arc. Stevens explained the story behind the album recently to Pitchfork‘s Ryan Dombal in perhaps the smartest and most self-aware artist interview I have ever read. Reading this interview and listening to the album clarified some mysterious elements in Stevens’s previous music. I found myself saying things like “ah…that’s what he meant by that lyric” or “that’s where that dark image came from.” If you’re new to his music, it would be interesting if you were to start here and proceed backwards, getting to know Stevens the way we get to know the characters and music of Sondheim’s Merrily We Go Along. After “Carrie & Lowell,” your next stop, “The Age of Adz,” may come as a shock — but that’s how it goes with Sufjan Stevens, one of the least predictable, and most defining, musical artists of our era.
So how did Stevens transform such intimate and painful subject matter into words and music? With sensitivity, restraint, simple beauty, and the ability, bestowed upon only the finest artists, to turn the personal into the universal. Certain songs, certain phrases in “Carrie & Lowell” make me weep every time. If you’ve ever been a parent — or a child — you may have the same reaction. But be warned, or as Stevens put it in Pitchfork:
Don’t listen to this record if you can’t digest the reality of it.