Carrie & Lowell is the album that finally turned the corner for me with Sufjan Stevens. I’ve acknowledged that slow turn in my heart: how obnoxious and twee I found those early records, Seven Swans and then the (for me) odious states project which was all the rage with the indie kids I would have done anything to separate myself from in my own artsy youthful angst. How the Christmas albums, bewildering in their progressive complexity and impossible sincerity, caught like a hook on my once-Christian heart. How The BQE and Age of Adz seemed designed specifically to prove a proghead like me wrong about my assessment. But it was ultimately Carrie & Lowell, an album about the savagery and grace of intense parental grief that came in the wake of me losing my own parent that solidified his position in my heart. My sentiment around that record in particular is one part sincere critical admiration for it as an artistic project and one part the intensity of that bloom of grief, a specific club that anyone who’s ever lost a parent enters, the uniqueness of that inevitable pain.
Javelin comes nearly a decade later, gently agnostic to the experimental electronic and ballet work that has largely filled the space between Carrie and this one. Time closes to zero; his partner has died, a confirmation of his long-rumored sexuality coming with a heartbreaking letter of lost love. The record he made for his father was several hours of meditative ambient music, focusing on the locus of that grief in the language specific to it. So why here does he return to the musical language of the grief of his mother for his departed love? It’s a mystery worth pondering in your heart, not mine; we seek, in part, reflections of our parents in our lovers, either in affirmation or in inversion, to replicate love or flee from its image, and the unity here of languages is too intimate to conjecture from the outside but too obvious not to note. There’s even a gentle reference to the cadence of “Fourth of July”‘s refrains of possession, my dragonfly, my firefly. But given the gentility of those previous songs and these ones, the sense of surrender in them, first of child to mother and next of man to lover, the affect of a feminine falsetto, it’s hard not to feel the overwhelming bloom of love emerging from the black soil of grief.
Grief is easy to write about. As a young writer in fine arts programs, you are often told not to write about the loss of a loved one. The reason is simple: that wound, deep and profound, glistening in its darkness, is near-universal across the human body. What else can be said of death? We all mourn the same thing, the loss of safety, the death of the self, the dissolution of the structures and people we adore. So, you are called to speak on other things. Love, it turns out, is much harder to write about well. For being such a common feeling, it crumbles into bad metaphor and cloying, clumsy directness without grace. It’s agreed, generally speaking, that great stories of love, not of romance but of love, that brilliant storm of the heart, is one of the greatest tests of the pen. And, it turns out, in tackling that tricksome beast, the depth of our capacity to write gainfully about grief also expands. No longer is the writing just about the sense of the sudden emptiness where a person once was. There is also the corona of love, the individual details and gestures rendered in miniature that mark this loss, beyond the notion of loss in general.
Sufjan dapples these gentle musical compositions, rich in piano and plucked harp and orchestral drums and choirs and strings, swimming like color veils against an autumn window, the colors of the changing leaves and scattered clouds of plant-matter clustered on the ground merging with those of the veils themselves, with lines of intense cutting beauty. His music alone here reads as the main body of the compositional approach of Carrie & Lowell married to an articulating layer of electronic elements borrowed from Aporia, his collaborative New Age record with his step-father, a unity of forms of love. But the final piece of the puzzle is his effortless poetics. I am not a lyrics listener; I am by and large, to a comical degree, interested in the music over the words, letting the voice act as an instrument rather than a conveyance of exegetic meaning. This comes in part from spending so much time listening to extreme metal on one end and prog on the other, a melding of the unintelligible both by sound or word salad. So when lyrics swim up to the surface for me, pull at my attention, this means something to me; they have broken through the music alone to grab me by the throat, inverted the relationship that otherwise is so natural for me.
Sufjan by this point has become a master of this relationship. The music here, had it been an instrumental record, would still be end-of-year worthy, a rich post-Peter Gabriel record of progressive/art pop and folk and electronic. But its the addition of those words that elevates this record, and Sufjan himself, to the vaunted heights of Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom. To be able to deliver a line like “I will always love you,” simple and direct, in such a human and holy way against such a beautiful bed of instruments, knowing the grief it sprang from. Endlessly cataloging and indexing the lines in question would be a waste of all of our time, but I will give you a single one to whet the appetite and prove my point: “Burn my body; celebrate the afterglow.” Just what a beautiful line, digging into the imagery of funerary rite, the complexity of horror against this gentility, love in the presence of violence and pain, how loss is inherently a celebration of what was. I am not a Christian and have not been for quite some time, for all the complex reasons that drive one toward or away from faith. But the language and images Sufjan pulls from his faith, not to mention the sentiment of endless love without judgment, a reconciliation of peace against cruelty, seems to so effortlessly pour forth like healing waters these beautiful lines. They are not the final brushstroke of masterful song: by their placement, they seize up the eye, become the everything. The new gestalt. If Carrie & Lowell was his masterpiece before, which I attest to, then this is at last an equal to it, bridegroom of the heart.
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.