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Listening to Sufjan’s Gift

As an only child on road trips, the back seat of the car was my domain of reading books and looking at billboards. I remember having a colorful box set of Disney short stories on cassette, and my parents tell of stuffed animals I don’t remember throwing out the window. For the first time since shopping for apartments on Long Island in 2005, I took a road trip with my parents this summer. I spent part of the ride listening to something new via headphones: Sufjan Stevens’ most recent album, Carrie & Lowell .

One of my students mentioned this album in class last semester and asked me why I pay attention to Stevens’ career. I first became aware of Stevens through a radio preview of his 2007 symphonic work, The BQE. I read about christendom’s rage against rawness of his 2010 album The Age of Adz. I sang in the choir in 2012 when Resurrection Brooklyn covered “Abraham”from his 2004 album Seven Swans for its Lessons and Carols service. I cheered from afar when my Stony Brook University colleagues in Yarn/Wire joined him for the multimedia project Round-Up at Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 2015. As I told my student, I follow the work of Sufjan Stevens because he was the first composer I encountered who writes both contemporary concert music and indie rock. As an act of solidarity, I purchased a download of my first album by Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell.

Upon listening, I realized I had forgotten the sound of his singing voice. I found familiar the swells of guitar chords, the repeated questioning “How?”and the soaring synth postlude of “Drawn to the Blood.” I did not expect the grand simplicity of a unison vocal line accompanied by radiant guitar-picking in “Eugene” and the first half of “The Only Thing.”  The sparseness of the ceaseless repeated note in “John My Beloved” gradually expands to multilayered vocals with the softness of phyllo pastry in its last stanzas. The stepwise ascent introduced in the voice and a brief piano solo in “Death with Dignity” returns interchangebly among vocals and muddled synths in “All of Me Wants All of You.” A hypnotic chord progression in “Fourth of July” persists with the sadness of the song’s brief lyric phrases. 

My favorite song on the album is “Should Have Known Better.” I relish the rhythm Stevens extracts from and repeats throughout the text: “I should’ve wrote a letter,” “I’m light as a feather,” “No, I’m not a go-getter,” “my brother had a daughter,” and “I’m a fool in a fetter.” The bright layers of multiple acoustic guitars and piano increase and decrease in amounts of reverb like refreshing ocean waves shining and crashing into each other. Whatever hopefulness is gained through the course of the song is submerged in a resonant pool postlude of dark piano–stripped of its percussive attack–and descending bass line.

This week after seeing my parents again, I read about the album for the first time, about the death of Stevens’ troubled mother, about his emotional chaos afterward, about his belief in unconditional love. The sadness of Carrie & Lowell is the gift of permission for others to grieve, a gift with fragments of revulsion, yet wrapped in stunning elegy and lullaby.

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