Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell

(Asthmatic Kitty; 2015)

By Robin Smith | 30 March 2015

Twang sounds the way dust moves. It’s when curtains get pulled and light starts to shimmer where it shouldn’t; it curls out of place the way the dead float through your room, peacefully and invisibly. I do not think that’s what it used to sound like, but Sufjan Stevens has made a lilting, forceless companion out of it, a reason to open your eyes and then roll your head back onto the pillow. No one comes back, but the sounds they make are total.

Right now I’m thinking about Carrie & Lowell’s “Should’ve Known Better,” a song which quietly retreats from the utter devastation conjured in the two songs before and after it. It talks about something simpler: regret for the past and hope for the future. The twang is a minute affectation on it, but it’s also essential. This song, driven on ice road production along bridges to nowhere, needs an accident. It needs transparent feeling. Twang sounds like Americana’s accident, to me: you have to strain to make it, but it comes out imperfect, like all of our expressive languages. Like this review.

There’s “The Only Thing,” too, and it sounds a little bit like London Grammar shimmering in a British sunset—but first it trembles. Moments before that formally angelic guitar riff, Sufjan sings of listless pining, and then reveals the sound it makes: “Should I tear my heart out now / Everything I feel returns to you somehow?”, he asks, before realising he’s asking the dead. Then comes the twang: the curtains open wide and the deceased show themselves in the new morning light. That huge guitar climax comes in—something grander, more living—but it’s happening out the window.

That’s just about all I can tell you about twang, for now. It draws a subtle focus and then recedes from the record without resolve. Its tensions remain. If Sufjan is a perfectionist, he is now perfecting the art of stumbling, creating melodies that writhe with uncertainty and voices that echo back on themselves. He is trying to work out which character can live with this: the hawk, the mare, the dove; the child living the life or the man with the memories. It is complex and supremely confusing. It is anything but sparse.

I don’t listen to tension well. It’s why I prefer warm drone to dark ambient, because the former rests on catharsis while the latter feels like it’s still happening out of view–the worst kind of musical violence. Carrie & Lowell is impossible and impractical, because these whispers go out to nobody that could ever answer them. There are no cadences worthy of the longing. You can’t strum a chord over it. The sound of a fallen family tree is lurching synth drone, spewing and rising like one of Sarah Davachi’s newest compositions; warm on the surface, troubled among the layers.

I’ve come to realise that folk is indeed Sufjan’s root music, that Michigan (2003) is the beginning of all of this—when “Romulus” first told the tale of him and his mother, and where a state was his own. Carrie & Lowell is not a return to folk, though; it is the growth from that root. On “Eugene,” the most traditional song here, he turns an idealised pastoral conclusion upside down, asking a cosmic version of an obvious question: “What’s the point in singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?”. And there’s the supposed purity of the acoustic “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross,” but it crests with calm waves of lo-fi, as if it were an Elliott Smith song trying to soften itself into a New Age.

I do not think that Sufjan is asking complex questions here, but complexity is encoded in them—“they’ll never even hear you” sounds, to these ears, like Sufjan lamenting that this album is an only child. It should be sung to; his mother should make the songs. The operative question of “Blue Bucket of Gold”—“Friend, why don’t you love me?”—is horrible, but I understand it as genuine curiosity. A question is not rhetorical just because it goes unanswered. Carrie & Lowell is in dialogue with a ghost–a moving, smiling ghost, a ghost that exists in the past, a ghost that manifests in the present, a ghost that time can’t connect. It’s heartbreaking to hear such futility.