Okay. What are the most devastating albums you can think of? Not individual songs, entire concept albums that lay waste from start to finish. For me I’d put something like The Antler’s Hospice near the top, certainly Cat Power’s Moon Pix, and insert your favorite Elliott Smith album here. It’s a surprisingly hard list to fill out. Most people can craft an achey breaky sad song, but to build an entire album on it is daunting. Even dark night of the soul aficionados like The National have to break up their albums with something a little faster-paced, a little upbeat, a little more lively. Devastating albums are a mass grave, and all that diggin’ ain’t easy.
Sufjan Steven’s latest, Carrie & Lowell is right up (down?) there with the best of them. Illustrations of searing pain are usually done by carpet bombing the listener: just laying it on thick with heavy crescendos, cathartic singing/screaming and stark contrasts between quiet and epic. Carrie really only utilizes a barely there production with in-the-room intimacy. Other albums may be devastating because of how they overwhelm you with haymakers; this one succeeds instead by just making you weaker so that even lightest feathery strum is too much.
The last Sufjan album, the bombastic and electronic Age of Adz, was all about staying interesting with King Kong tubas and auto tune interludes. Here, some songs aren’t much more than a guitar and the steady hum of the air conditioner. The choice to leave it in is like leaving in the singer inhaling during a verse: it reminds you of the human on the other end.
Do not get the impression that this is basically another Seven Swans
Here’s how much the songs are reeled in: on Adz, the structure of a lot of songs would start with huge electronic pop noise and abruptly drop into intricate, finger-plucked acoustic lilts (“I Want to be Well,” “Impossible Soul.”) On Carrie, we start with the acoustic delicacies and drop, further, into wordless, ambient yawns. Big, sacred dins that don’t really fit with the song they come soaring out of, but these abyssal voids are there between every few songs. It can be unsettling.
A lot of fuss was made about the change of sound on Adz, and the return to stripped down folk has some Sufjan traditionalists celebrating. Do not get the impression that this is basically another Seven Swans, the last time he scaled back this much. On Carrie, he’s on another level with his songwriting and guitar-playing, a gear that I didn’t even know he had. “John My Beloved,” in particular, is one of the most gorgeous things he’s ever written. His singing oscillates around a simple three note measure with words that explore the intersection of love and death: “I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head.”
The one song that is so on-the-nose about the genesis of this album, the one that dives head first into the death of a parent, is the glowing and poetic “Fourth of July.” Framed as a conversation between Stevens and his post-mortem mother, her verses are peppered with pet names and comforts. Still, there is no panacea for grief, and it ends on a coldly factual refrain, “we’re all gonna die,” which is so plainly put it’s almost audacious.
It is Sufjan’s best album. Surely those who liked the gang of instruments and musical whimsy in Illinois will feel a little left out, but this is an album that improves on all his best previous work. Grief persists and death is universal, but art like this is a shining example of making your time count.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.