For Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens decided to pick up his banjo again. One friend said the album feels like the unofficial Oregon installment of Stevens's 50 States project, because the songs return to the time Stevens spent in Eugene with his mother, Carrie—a schizophrenic with bipolar disorder and substance-abuse issues who died in 2012.
Carrie abandoned the family when Stevens was about a year old. But between the ages of 5 to 8, when she was married to Lowell Brams, Stevens and his siblings spent summers with the couple. The children’s contact with their mother was intermittent throughout the rest of her life. (Brams now runs Stevens’s label, Asthmatic Kitty.)
The track “Fourth of July” is a conversation between mother and son on the day she died. “Should Have Known Better,” where Stevens describes Carrie leaving him and his brother in a video store, focuses on his regrets—“The past is still the past/The bridge to nowhere/I should have wrote a letter/Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling.” Meditations on grief and loss are not unusual topics for this artist, but Carrie & Lowell wrestles with complex, binary feelings about a primal relationship.
In the title track, he sings about the memories of those summers, but it ends on a dour note—“Ephemera on my back/She breaks my arm.” Stevens—who’s notorious for his evasive interview answers—has also been unusually forthcoming about the abandonment in both the lyrics and with the press. (He revealed much of the album’s back story to Ryan Dombal in February.) This sudden openness has contributed to the album being heralded as his best work. Pitchfork even awarded it a 9.3, one of the highest album scores this year and the top score Stevens has ever received.
In anticipation of his Seattle shows, I've been listening to Carrie & Lowell quite a bit, but my mind keeps wandering back to The Age of Adz.
After Stevens released Illinois in 2005, he debunked the “state project” myth (admitting to Paste magazine the whole thing was a joke), wrote a bunch of weirdo Christmas songs, composed an orchestral suite dedicated to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and released an EP of songs a month before the arrival of his sixth album on October 11, 2010. I bounced out of my chair when he announced The Age of Adz (pronounced "odds") and awaited the LP in a state of near-constant anxiety. Upon first listen, I removed my headphones, looked over at a coworker, and said, "I think Sufjan Stevens just swore at me!" (And he had, singing, "I'm not fucking around" on "I Want to Be Well.")
The sprawling, cacophonous mess begins with a classic-enough Sufjan Stevens track, "Futile Devices," where he whisper-sings over softly played acoustic guitar about the subjective details only lovers notice. Ultimately, the song is about the failure to express emotions, about being unable to form the proper words to externalize your thought process. (A topic he often revisits on Carrie & Lowell.) After this point, however, the record begins to wildly diverge from most of Stevens's earlier work.
On "Too Much," the record starts to whirl and beep and flicker. We're told, "There's too much riding on that/There's too much love," and Stevens's sweet rumination becomes an angry diatribe about the loss of his health, and subsequent crisis of faith. No track better exemplifies the bang-clash-boom electronica than album closer "Impossible Soul," which packs Auto-Tune, call-and-response chants, screaming electric-guitar riffs, real horns and flutes sounding more like samples than instruments, vocals by My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, abrupt analog glitches, and just about every other idea Stevens could imagine, packed into one 25-minute-long song.
As a major Sufjan Stevens fan, I was personally offended by The Age of Adz when I first heard it. I love Seven Swans, Michigan, and Illinois because Stevens turns personal stories into orchestral epics. They reinforce the part of my ego that demands vastness and consequence from my life, while also supporting the notion that life has order and meaning. And I'd waited five years only to hear Stevens betray this pretense.
But my loyalty gnawed at me, so I continued to play the album. It finally dawned on me that Stevens either no longer gave a shit about my fandom or was making it very clear he never had. The collapse of his mental and physical well-being had altered the fabric of his worldview. He'd displayed the most vulnerable, horrific period of his life in public. The Age of Adz rid Stevens of the sentiment and expectations that surrounded his previous work. I began to respect the bravery of this act—not just a risky move, artistically speaking, but a bold acknowledgement that life is beyond one's control at all times.
The Age of Adz disrupted my personal narrative of Sufjan Stevens as an artist, and it remains one of my favorite albums to this day. My love was hard-won, but as I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate the intimacy that comes from trusting another person enough to let them see you at your ugliest and least comprehensible, in the middle of disarray and turmoil. While Carrie & Lowell tells the artist's origin story, and beautifully displays how parental bonds form the base for all our adult relationships, The Age of Adz is the true window into Sufjan Stevens's brain. It's not quiet contemplation; it's chaos.