Monday, November 16, 2015

Carrie & Lowell

"This is not my art project; this is my life."  
  -  Sufjan Stevens, speaking to Pitchfork in 2015
How, as a music writer, can you criticise somebody else's grief?

For one thing, it seems extremely callous to subject an expression of mourning - and that's effectively what Carrie & Lowell, the latest Sufjan Stevens album, is - to the same scrutiny as an album that aims to entertain or challenge. When I was thinking about what to write in today's blog, I considered comparing C&L to Electro-Shock Blues by the Eels; both albums were written in response to family deaths, and I could draw a lot of similarities between the two, as well as some interesting differences.

Here's the problem: I like Electro-Shock Blues more than I like Carrie & Lowell,  but to explain why would require a degree of heartlessness on my part. Tracks like Dead of Winter (below) have a dark, defeated feeling that, for me, is absent from the songs that make up C&L, and Sufjan's vocals have always had a polite emotionlessness that falls a bit flat on a record that's supposed to bare his deepest, darkest feelings. True, bleak lines like "We're all gonna die" (from Fourth of July) are arguably made more striking by the balanced, inflection-free tone in which they're delivered, and there's some shock inherent in hearing the word 'masturbate' from the buttoned-up voice that once sang "I almost touched your blouse" like a guilt-stricken monk in a confessional booth...but, crucially, Sufjan Stevens never sounds to me like a man who's just lost his mother. Mark Oliver Everett, on the other hand, kinda does:

But I shouldn't really be writing any of this, because what I'm basically saying is that Sufjan's grief isn't as good - or as affecting, or as powerful - as the grief I've heard expressed elsewhere. And that's horrible! You don't go to a funeral and give the son of the deceased notes on how his heartfelt eulogy could have been impoved, and that's kind of what I feel like I'm doing when I say that Carrie & Lowell doesn't wreck me like it seems to have wrecked everyone else.

I mean, I understand why everyone's nuts for it: we're used to Sufjan throwing everything plus the kitchen sink into his albums, and the stark difference between the likes of Illinois and the stripped-back Carrie & Lowell really drives home just how personal and painful these songs are to him. But quite frankly, that which everyone else is calling bleakness sounds to me almost like levity; these finger-picked acoustic tracks don't sound harrowed to me, they sound sort of summery and hopeful.

Then again, perhaps that's what Sufjan was aiming for - hope even in bereavement and loss.

Still, when all's said and done, my criticisms and analyses of Carrie & Lowell are moot anyway. As the quote at the beginning of this post makes clear, Sufjan Stevens didn't make this album to please me, or anyone else for that matter - he made it, I presume, to help him through the grief, to put his demons to rest, and to document his dearly departed in a lasting form. It's his grief, not mine, and I suppose the important thing is that this outpouring of emotion achieved the desired results for him. Perhaps I should count myself lucky that I've even been allowed to hear these songs, which could just as easily have stayed private to Sufjan for the rest of his life.

That being said, you definitely need to check out Electro-Shock Blues if you're drawn to Carrie & Lowell's recently-bereaved headspace. Here's Climbing to the Moon, another of my favourites from E-SB:

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