Sufjan Stevens turns forty this year, a surprise for those aware of his youthful appearance. This makes more sense if one remembers that 2005’s Illinois is ten years old now, and that he was putting out records a while before then. With age, comes reflection. And it is at forty that Stevens has decided to release an album about his mother, who left him when he was one, and died in 2012 after a prolonged struggle with mental illness and alcoholism. Though Stevens has always written personal music, imbued with his faith, love life, or commenting with anguish on the post-industrial decline of his native Detroit, Carrie & Lowell is by far the most emotional album yet.
The complicated nature of this particular mother-son relationship means this was always going to be the case. Stevens is justifiably angry. The album recalls scattered moments of disappointment - being left in video stores and bouts of drunkenness - as well as physical abuse. “What did I do to deserve this?” he asks on ‘Drawn to the Blood’, as any child would. However, love also plays a part. Stevens’ pain is palpable on ‘No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross’, the song which directly confronts her death.
While this all marks a distinct change from the content of Illinois or 2003’s Michigan – there are no heroes of American history or gutsy portraits of rolling landscapes here – the tone will prove recognisable to fans of these earlier albums. The synths and abstract electronics of 2010’s The Age of Adz do not feature, perhaps predictably for an album in this mould. Instead, the sound is stripped back to Stevens’ earlier style – finger-plucked strings, isolated pianos and appropriately placed backing vocals. It is Stevens’ voice, though, which provides the most range in this album, rather than instrumentation.
It is worth taking a step back halfway through Carrie & Lowell and taking a moment to appreciate how hard it would be, for anyone, to make an album like this. Let alone to do it in such a well-proportioned manner that never threatens to overwhelm the listener. Memorable, intimate, and dignified, this is Stevens’ best record since Illinois.