Sufjan Stevens records always teeter along a thin line between artifice and authenticity: His winding, punctuation-laden song titles, alt-rap ambitions, and geography-bee showmanship all draw attention to the calculated nature of his act, yet none of that necessarily proves that what he’s doing is in any way inauthentic to him.
Stevens is not the first to shimmy down this swaying high wire; Dylan has been doing an act since day one, every bit of it theater and every bit of it (I believe) true to who he is: Just because it’s a show doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply felt. With Sufjan, though, I’m not always seduced into believing his particular narrative. I like him when the wire sways closer to the confessional side—the Seven Swans material generally wins me over, as do things like the hushed character study in “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” which turns the touristy nature of the 50 States project on its head and flips it into a moment of real introspection. When he’s got the full orchestra and the cheerleaders and the bevy of cultural and geographic allusions, though, I tend to find his albums to resemble Rube Goldberg rigs. They may get the job done but I can see all the pieces moving, and even though I might admire the assembly I never forget that what I’m witnessing is machinery.
Carrie & Lowell is billed as his most personal album, which it may be, though it’s worth noting that this assertion is both unproveable and also uninteresting. It’s a song cycle about familial estrangement and death and processing complicated forms of grief, and I have no reason to doubt the songs paint a real picture of Sufjan’s life and his conflicted relationship with his late mom, but the whole thing could be a crock of shit and it wouldn’t mean anything to the ultimate efficacy of the album.
And it is an effective, most moving album—for me, easily the most seductive and believable work he has made, and lovely to boot. What makes it work is its synthesis: Many critics are referring to the album as simple, and in terms of arrangement and composition maybe it is, but the way the acoustic instruments and the synthesizers play off one another so symbiotically, always tasteful but also warm and superbly melodic, is no small or simple thing at all. The album sounds restrained, thoughtful but never fussy; it betrays real musicianship but doesn’t flaunt it or allow it to get in the way of the songs.
Other things that I normally dislike about Stevens work here. His lyrics can seem self-conscious and awkward when he’s shoehorning references to the State of Illinois into each piece, but here his rather precise way with words illuminates the awkward and conflicted feelings in the songs. And his voice, which has always been a little too thin and brittle for my tastes, sounds appealingly vulnerable in this context—always on the edge of breaking, just like the songs themselves.
I do not doubt that there is much to absorb from the lyrics—I have seen think pieces about how this is a profound work of religious art, about how boldly is confronts death, about how it is basically Sufjan’s “coming out” record, etc.—but for me, right now, I find the album to be gripping as it washes over me, the overall impression of the music and words being one of adolescence’s trembling awkwardness, and about the pain of growing up quicker than you might like to. It is an arresting piece of work, which is not something I tend to say about Sufjan Stevens albums, so on that level, anyway, it surely deserves applause.