I first listened to Sufjan Stevens in 2010.
After reading a review for Age of Adz, I asked a friend at the time about Sufjan and whether he was worth looking into.
Her response: "Yeah, but he hasn't put out anything good since Seven Swans."
After listening to Carrie & Lowell, I've come to think her opinion probably sits in the back of a lot of people's heads. Sufjan Stevens has unquestionably put out greater albums since, though. Illinois stands tall in gregariousness, all sounds and melody and angels on high, both of a place and of everywhere and everything all at once. Age of Adz made the scary palatable, with brief melodies piercing through electronic noise.
But there's something about Seven Swans that draws you in. It's quiet, barely a whisper. It's Sufjan being personal at 28, without quite knowing what his "personal" is. It's religious, yet somewhat naive in it's portrayal of love. It's not to be taken at face value, or at least in complete seriousness.
That simple, distilled form of Sufjan wasn't long for this world. He had too many ideas, too many projects. He had to finish the infamous 50 albums on 50 states, which was never going to be a reality. Michigan preceded Seven Swans and Illinois followed it, and while personable, they were far from personal. It was music of a time and place, relatable for a young generation constantly on the move, finding new places and falling in love with all of them. The sound matched the grandness of the idea: big and noisy, but with those moments of Seven Swans melody. That music, that big idea music, seemed better at the time. But I don't know that we ever considered what would happen if Sufjan Stevens, with all that life experience gained, came down to Earth.
Carrie & Lowell is the result of that, and it's the culmination of one of the most interesting careers folk music has seen. It's an album that's personal for Sufjan Stevens at 39 years old, religious but no longer naive. It's about the death of his mother, who was never a part of his life, and about grappling with those feelings. He recalls times and places - different, yet drawn with the same colours as Michigan and Illinois. These times and places, though, are definitively his.
The sound of Carrie & Lowell is spare like Seven Swans, but all the freak-outs and cacophony of Sufjan's later career are used to accentuate the repetitive chords. Seven Swans was eleven songs of ukulele strumming, Carrie & Lowell uses all those harps and pianos and other sounds to break up the drone.
It's easy to see, even on first listen, that Carrie & Lowell will be well-received. It makes apparent that we all had my friend's thought in the back of our heads. Even with more grandiose creations under his belt, Sufjan Stevens, when distilled and looking inward, is at his best.