Tag Archives: sufjan stevens

Sufjan Stevens ‘Carrie and Lowell’ – Review

9 May

On the song ‘Romulus’, from 2005’s epic ‘Michigan’ album, Sufjan Stevens sung about a mother. At the time few people suspected it was about Sufjan’s own mum as the album was full of characters, mainly fictional and historical. Slotted neatly in the middle of this very biographical album, why should the mother in Romulus be Stevens’ own? So when he prayed her Chevrolet never be ‘fixed or be found’ and said he was ‘ashamed of her’ we didn’t take it that the ‘i’ in the story was Sufjan himself. Afterall, Sufjan Stevens is an artist dedicated to artifice and storytelling – despite the traditional folk tools that he often uses, he’s about as far removed from the ‘confessional singer songwriter’ as anyone you could imagine. Isn’t he?

‘Carrie and Lowell’ is not only a significant, abrupt and accomplished left turn in to (for serious want of a better word) “confessional” territory, it also makes us rethink everything we thought we knew about the artist and his oeuvre. After listening to ‘Carrie and Lowell’ you will never hear Romulus, or many of Sufjan’s other songs, in the same way again. He achieves here what no other popular singer-songwriter I can think of has achieved – an astonishing meditation on death that is somehow compelling, thought provoking and enjoyable.

It’s impossible to fully understand or appreciate ‘Carrie and Lowell’ without some knowledge of the events that inspired it. Sufjan’s mother Carrie passed away in 2012 after a Cancer battle. Sufjan and Carrie’s relationship had been strained; Carrie, who suffered from depression and various addictions, abandoned Sufjan when he was a child, and saw him in-frequently through his childhood. There were some good times though; summers spent in Oregon (an important location on the record) where Sufjan, Carrie and Lowell (Carrie’s husband and Sufjan’s step Father) would briefly interact like a normal, dysfunctional family. Many of these memories, and the emotions related to them, are disected on this record. There is no doubt that Sufjan loved his mother but it’s unsurprising that he also had, and continues to have, conflicting feelings about Carrie. This album, named after his mother and Step Father, finds Sufjan wrestling with those feelings in an effort to process the grief, hurt, anger and devotion that he felt towards her. It’s an honest and through account of mourning that is rooted in specific memories and emotions but will be universally appreciated by anyone who has lost somebody close to them.

Loosely, the album can be read as a an exploration of the grieving process, where Sufjan moves through what is commonly known as the ‘five stages of grief’. So we have some denial (‘Mother I can hear you’), anger (‘my prayer has always been love, what did I do to deserve this?’), bargaining (‘what could I have said to raise you from the dead?’), depression (‘Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away’), and acceptance (‘nothing can be changed, the past is still the past, the bridge to nowhere’). Except, it’s not quite as simple as that. Over the course of twelve heart-breaking tracks, Sufjan falls apart and attempts to pick himself up and put the pieces back together, only, unlike some Sufjan Stevens albums, the narrative isn’t straightforward or linear. The moment of greatest clarity and understanding doesn’t come at the album’s end, but rather at the beginning, where Sufjan realises that ‘every road leads to an end’. The final song on the album, ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’, in contrast, seems to find Sufjan at a point of doubt, reaching out to God, his friends and fables in search of his ‘gold’, what ever that may be. Perhaps what Sufjan is saying is that there is no start and end when it comes to life and death, and neither are there answers or solutions.

The melodies are as perfectly realised as the lyrics. They are evocations of sadness – the way they rise and sink, and seem both foreign and oddly familiar at the same time. They are delivered by a voice as distinctive and remarkable as any other; his singing, in a falsetto that seems to glide with no strain, is heavenly. The music underneath does nothing to get in the way; it’s warm and simply arranged, ensuring the focus is mainly on the words and melodies.

in One sense ‘Carrie and Lowell’ seems to demystify the grieving process; through serious contemplation, explanation and meditation it makes the unknowable seem somehow more knowable. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the lyrics and arrangements, coupled with the complexity and never-ending depth of the emotions being explored that gives us a sense of some understanding; understanding of what it is to mourn, understanding of faith in the face of loss, and I suppose understanding of the ultimate lack of understanding. On ‘Carrie and Lowell’, as in life, nothing is answered fully and there is no happy ending. But the album leaves me feeling closer; closer to music, closer to life, closer to death and closer to God. It reminds me of the healing power of music and the comfort that can be found there.


Sufjan Stevens announces new christmas album

3 Oct

This November Sufjan Stevens will release ‘Silver & Gold: Songs For Christmas, Vols. 6-10 ‘. This is the follow-up to his fantastic festive ‘Songs For Christmas I-V’ which was released in 2006. That was a pretty lush package in itself but the new volume is even more packed with goodies. Too many goodies in fact to list here, so instead go to his website for full details and track listings.


Frankly this is the best music related news I’ve heard in ages.

Sufjan Stevens ‘ The Age Of Adz’ – Review

9 Oct

If there is one thing we have come to expect from Sufjan Stevens it’s the unexpected. Christian folk album? Tick. An instrumental album about a stretch of highway in New York? Tick. A five disc Christmas project? Tick. How about 50 albums for 50 states? Well, he got two completed. He is defined by his indefinability, he makes Bowie look utterly predictable. So it was no great surprise to learn that his latest offering is electronica influenced and much more personal than anything he’s done before.

Despite all of the above Sufjan Stevens is a very recognizable artist, largely thanks to the lyrical themes and musical motifs that join the dots of his shape shifting picture. There is his stunning voice for starters, and then there is the banjo, the woodwind instruments, the religious imagery, the constant regret and the epic arrangements. All of the above feature on ‘The Age of Adz’ to a certain degree, and some songs definitely recall Sufjan’s earlier work, but most of this material sounds brand spanking new. The album opener ‘Futile Devices’ sounds the most like Folky Sufjan, with its quietly strummed guitar and poignant lyrics that blur the line between love and friendship. This song is my favourite thing on here but it’s somewhat of a red hearing, as the rest of the album (apart from the odd moment) is electronic and could by no definition be described as ‘folk music’.

The best way to describe ‘The Age of Adz’ is to say that it’s paranoid. The drum beats are pulsating and they almost flicker from channel to channel which is rather disorienting. In many ways the album reminds me of a maximalist version of Kid A, they work from the same electronic template and they are both lyrically unsure, regretful and tense. The difference is that Sufjan coats his beats with an orchestra (at times) and at the very least the odd flute or choir. Lyrically it ditches his previous habit for storytelling and instead takes us on a personal exploration of love with no concepts or conceits to hide behind. There is nothing quite as rich as ‘Romulus’ or ‘Casmir Pulaski Day’ but the lyrics are still great, particularly on the slower songs. It may be a very complex album by Sufjan’s standards, but at least lyrically, this is pretty straightforward and emotive stuff.

The sheer length and ambition of this record is both its saving grace and it’s downfall. most songs easily pass the five-minute mark and more often than not they only come alive at the very end. The title track is pretty laborious until about five minutes in where Sufjan reverts back to his acoustic guitar – it’s a standout moment. It’s also worth sticking around till the end of ‘Get Real, Get Right’ to hear the sweeping conclusion.

Like every other Sufjan album there is the odd bit of filler, ‘Bad Communication’ being one, and like every other Sufjan album it is far too long and intense. You have to wonder how exactly Sufjan wants you to listen to ‘The Age of Adz’, I suppose most people listen to their music these days through earphones or on Car stereos, but that wont do for much of this album, in particular the album’s final track. The only way you can really listen to ‘Impossible Soul’ is to sit down, with something alcoholic close at hand, and let the music wash over you. Sure it won’t make much sense and it won’t be that exciting but it will certainly make you feel sophisticated and surely that was Sufjan’s intention in creating this rather pretentious 25 minute long odyssey? Don’t get me wrong, it’s very well crafted and extremely well written, but it does kind of feel redundant tagged onto the end of the album, surely it would have been better released on its own?

You really have to invest time in this album, just as you always have with Sufjan. This is a long and often difficult record but there is certainly gold at the end of the rainbow and the journey itself is constantly fascinating. Ok, so after waiting for 5 years for this album my conclusion has to be that it’s a bit of a disappointment simply because it’s not the work of genius his last two proper albums were, but my expectations shouldn’t detract from what is a very good piece of work. This is an ambitious and challenging record that is often more frustrating than it is enjoyable but it’s always an awe-inspiring listen.



26 Aug

It’s been five long years since Sufjan Stevens released the phenomenal ‘Illinois’, his last full length ‘song based’ album. In those five years though he has been working pretty had, he’s put out a box set of christmas songs, a movie and soundtrack, a reworked version of his second album, a outakes collection and an e.p. Still it’s nice to know that on October 12th we will finally be able to hear the proper follow-up to ‘Illinois’. According to his website the album will not be a concept album and it will instead deal with love, loss, and the apocalypse. It also sounds like the album will be more electronic than his older material  with Sufjan saying ‘acoustic guitars give way to drum machines and analog synthesizers.’

If you can’t wait till October Sufjan has just released the e.p ‘All the delighted People’, you can order it now and listen to a track below

Christmas albums

14 Dec

It’s that time of year when we get out our favourite christmas records that fill our hearts with festive cheer, so I thought I would compile a list of the most essential Xmas records.

A Christmas Gif For You by Phil Spector and Artists

Perhaps the most essential of all Christmas albums, this transcends the time of year and is a classic in pop production. This Is also Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s favourite ever album, and the one that inspired Pet Sounds.

Elvis’s Christmas album / Elvis sings the Wonderful World of Christmas

However strange this might seem, Elvis’s first Christmas record is arguably his best studio album. It captures the rock and roll zest that made his early singles so great, the gospel songs that still ring as his most sincere and the ott ballads that would dominate his later career. He really rocks out on classic songs such as ‘Blue Christmas’ and ‘Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me.’ The 70’s follow up is nowhere near as good but there are still a few must listens that you won’t find anywhere else such as ‘Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees’.

Christmas with the Beach Boys

Perhaps The Beach Boys Christmas album is not the masterpiece it could have been, there is nothing to match Little Saint Nick or anything to rival Phil Spector’s work. Nonetheless this contains some real gems that ar given the BB treatment.

The Jackson Five Christmas Album

The obvious songs were given the bubblegum treatment by Michael and his brothers which produced mixed results. When it worked it worked well though as demonstrated by this fantastic version of Frosty The Snowman,

A Merry Christmas with Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters

Bing arguably sung the greatest christmas song (White Christmas) and his voice is complimented perfectly by that of the Andrew Sisters.  A traditional classic.

The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole had one of the all time best voices, and with The Christmas Song he had one of the best songs. The album of the same name features Nat doing all the standards in his silky sweet manner.

Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens

This collection of five eps was a great present as it came with some brilliant gifts. As well as the brilliantly packaged cds it came with a booklet of lyrics, chords, a comic, a poster a music video and all packaged in a wonderful box. The songs were just as festive and fun, a mixture of his own humourous material and classic hymns.

A Christmas Album By Bright Eyes

Unlike Sufjan Bright Eyes kept entirely to the standards but he gave them his own unique spin and a modern upgrade. His voice brilliantly complimented the traditional material.

A Snowflake Fell and It Felt Like A Kiss by Glasvegas

an attempt to recreate past glories of Phil Spector, this was a noble album that aimed to create something atmospheric and fresh. Miserable, yes, but stirring at the same time.

Christmas In the Heart By Bob Dylan

Critics have been strangely cynical about Dylan’s most recent album, forgetting perhaps that this is a born against christian that presents an oldies radio show. They may have been expecting something more radical or mote traditional Bob, but what they got was even better. I can’t remember anyone treating the classics so lovingly in recent times.

A Muppets Christmas Carol Soundtrack

The best adaptation of A Christmas Carol had a brilliant soundtrack. It may be the muppets and Sir Michael Cane but the songs are so catchy and christmasy that anyone could be singing them and it would still be brilliant.

Santa Claus The Movie Soundtrack

One of my favourite ever albums, this is hard to track down as it was never issued on cd but the movie is available everywhere and the songs are youtube. So atmospheric, so christmasy and so joyous, this is a christmas album for the entire family that provides a unique listening experience.

Now Thats What I Call XMAS!

If like me you will never get bored of the many songs that are constantly played at this time of year, then this collection is the best place to start. It collects all the obvious christmas number ones, and it is great for parties. Slade, Wham, Shakin Stevens, Wizzard, The Darkness – They’re all here.