Reviewed by John Cheek
This is the seventh album for the much praised idiosyncratic singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and being his first for five years has registered high in the charts. But there needs to be at the outset a word of warning for all Cross Rhythms readers. 'Carrie & Lowell' is not for the faint-hearted. And it needs to be pointed out that there are some swear words on this project. This is a lament, a psalm, a painfully honest account of dealing with bereavement, an album which appears characteristic, upon first listen, of a lightness-of-touch but in fact is Stevens' darkest collection of songs with which I am still getting to grips. But like Jacob wrestling the angel, a blessing rewards perseverance and repeated listens. These songs occupy a sonic landscape somewhere between early Belle & Sebastian and Simon & Garfunkel circa "Scarborough Fayre". They are full of religious concerns and allusions and prayers pepper the lyrics: confusion abounds, but reminiscent of Job, not Thomas the Doubter; they are ethereal, serious and certainly not quirky songs; "blues" in the truest sense. The songs are the result of the crisis which enveloped Stevens following the death, in December 2012, of his alcoholic, depressive, schizophrenic mother who abandoned him at a very young age and with whom he had experienced a difficult relationship ever since. The title also includes the name of his stepfather and their image adorns the sleeve. It's a cliche to assert that great loss or great suffering leads to great art, but here we encounter the Christian life in all its painful reality. It's not an easy listen - Sufjan has had his senses sharpened by his loss of innocence, as well as his mother, and he confesses to sins, failures and regrets. It's a challenging listen - on "The Only Thing", he contemplates suicide; and he admits to something of a nervous-breakdown on "No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross". It's a "Christian" listen, in the broadest sense - in "Death With Dignity" the songsmith opines, "I forgive you mother/And I hear you/And I long to be near you." A word of admiration about this album... it's not for the faint-hearted.
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