By BEN WRIGHT
Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens / Bass Concert Hall, Austin, Texas / 12 May 2015
Earlier this month, my stepmother contacted me out of the blue. I have spoken to her only once in the sixteen years since my father’s funeral. Julie and her husband are moving— leaving the house I used to visit every Saturday, a very long time ago. There is a box of stuff that has survived time. It’s mine if I want it.
I want it. I’ll be in England next month and I’ll pick it up.
But what’s in the box? Fossils, in a manner of speaking. But what kind? Photographs probably, in old frames that give the box an artificial weight. Maybe there’s treasure? A letter or a mix tape with handwritten sleeve notes? Or perhaps some old aftershave or tobacco? (A person’s scent is the first thing you forget.)
It’s hard to put into words how I feel about the box of fossils – a little surprised, numb perhaps, intrigued certainly. But for anyone who’s lost a parent, words and feelings usually fail to materialize on cue. They show up on their own time. And in between visits, lost ones become apparitions more than recollections.
“Where am I? My fading supply.” This simple fragmented lyric from Sufjan Steven’s new album Carrie & Lowell, uncannily captures how I feel. Stevens lost his mother in 2012 and has spent several years, it would seem, in a state of spiritual convalescence. As No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross more than hints that it hasn’t been an easy time: “Like a champion; Get drunk to get laid…I’m falling apart.” From various interviews strung across the web, a picture emerges of a troubled relationship with a now-lost parent.
Carrie & Lowell is a great record. (My Dad would’ve liked it.) But it’s more than that. To paraphrase Paul Simon, it’s a window into someone’s heart, someone who, like me, has been blown apart. It’s like liturgy, giving wordless folks words— putting a mighty pen to feelings that are so often expressed through swords in this broken world.
At some point Stevens’ mother Carrie walked out on Stevens and the rest of his family. His father remarried and raised them in Detroit, Michigan, through some of the rust belt city’s worst years. Stevens, it appears, is no longer close to his father. He is, though, close to a man named Lowell, who helped his mother navigate her battles with addiction and mental health to place where for several years, Stevens was able to spend the summers with them in Oregon. Though the couple later separated, Stevens remains in contact with Lowell, who now works at the singer’s record label, Asthmatic Kitty.
Those summers in Oregon must be like diamonds lodged in Stevens’ brain, and Carrie And Lowell spends a fair few stanzas taking them out and shining a light beneath them. Indeed a lot of the album’s prose sparkles in the gentle and mundane obscurities that make up a widowed child’s impression of a parent. It’s the argument over wasted watermelon, the disappointing Christmas presents, or the hug in the back seat that one remembers. Stevens is a haiku master of the small moment capture. His moments.
The rest of the album is speckled with words that work for everyone: “I just want to be near you…I should have wrote a letter….All of me wants all of you.” These are all things widowed children have thought and spluttered. By no means devoid of cliché (“The past is in the past…Every road leads to an end”) Carrie & Lowell furnishes old regrets with new life: a noble service to the grieving, whose need for vocabulary is acute.
Musically the album is rootsy, shorn of Steven’s recent penchant for elaborate electronica. Acoustic guitars, banjos and ukuleles mesh together on a bed of sustain-drenched pianos and swells. The album sounds a lot simpler than it is. In reality the subtly of arrangements mask their intricacy. With this in mind, it’s a shame Stevens’ in rather crudely double-tracked over most songs. Because the album has virtually no low end, Steven’s voice is a prominent bassy whisper. In an effort to thicken up the mix, numerous vocal takes have been panned over the stereo field. The result can be distracting – I want one Sufjan singing to me about his dead mother, not a pixie-choir of them.
The double tracking is gratefully jettisoned for the reverberating live show. Playing the Bass Concert Hall in Austin, Texas, Stevens was flanked by four multi-instrumentalists. He opened with Carrie & Lowell almost in its entirety before several victory laps consisting of old favourites. The live show was heavier than the album, with drums and bass lapped on (somewhat haphazardly) and several songs nicely reimagined with synths and loops.
The audience sat while visuals projected onto makeshift chapel windows. Stevens didn’t say a word for the first half of the concert. It felt like a wake. And then things loosened up. As if a weight had been lifted through the catharsis of musical grief, Stevens mixed in jokes and anecdotes as he went through his back catalogue. At times overwrought, the performance was mostly dazzling and gorgeous. As a musician who never learned how to pay the rent playing live, concerts usually leave me with feelings of wry dismissal (anyone could do that…I could do that) or anxious envy (why didn’t I think of that?) Sufjan Stevens is in his own league and one can do nothing but admire and applaud. He is the Lionel Messi of indie, the Bruce Springsteen of hipsters.
Some people just don’t get it though. One song landed with the words, “we’re all gonna die”, repeated with menace again and again before an abrupt a capella ending. This wasn’t enough to stop a quarter of the crowd from hooting and hollering with PBR-fuelled exuberance. Stop clapping! You’re going to die! Just like his mom and my dad!
Perhaps my annoyance was centred in bravado. I’m not a big chap, but I’m pretty certain that I could beat up most people who attend a Sufjan Stevens concert. However, I think it has probably more to do with the fact that my Dad is dead, and in a month I’ll be knocking on my stepmother’s door to pick up a box of fossils.
Sans hollering, I need Carrie & Lowell. But is there really “no shade in the shadow of the cross”? Does faith help a person in mourning or just complicate things? Is peace without answers a deal worth accepting? Perhaps there’s no shade because the light shines and the darkness flees. Rest, yes, but no shade. We are all laid bare in the Son. And like Stevens, we are helpless but to think of Pentecost and to cry up “Jesus, I need you, be near, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head.”