I have wanted to write about Sufjan Stevens for a while now. And I feel even now, no amount of lovely words or beautiful phrases could ever be constructed to capture the absolute wonder found in Sufjan's work.
Time and time again, I have been captivated by his orchestral sound, his intricate lyrics, and the gentleness of his vocals. It is something I can only be described as ethereal; unique and brave.
"Carrie & Lowell," Sufjan's latest album, has been out for a little while now; ever since March 31, 2015. This is an album of grief. An album of honesty, rawness, and uncertainty. Sufjan strings together small conclusions, with great feeling, to capture what it is to lose someone who is close, yet so far away. This is an album created from the passing of his mother, Carrie, who abandoned him and his family when Sufjan was just a boy, and who later died of stomach cancer.
I hope to deconstruct more of his songs in the future, but "Death with Dignity," struck a chord with me the first time I heard it, and is one of my favorite works created by Stevens.
Perhaps alluding to Oregon's Death with Dignity Act of 1994, we find in Steven's work that the pain of passing is not something taken lightly, not something that is perhaps dignified at all. This song is simple, only accompanied by guitar pluckings and-and some distant piano.
Sufjan seems afraid of his silence; the dark gravity of stillness, the heavy emptiness of one gone too soon. And he remains honest in this, telling his audience "And I don't know where to begin;" repeating this over and over, as a crying out of uncertainty.
She is somewhere out there. Somewhere in the middle of this still grief, this desert. But Sufjan has no way of reaching her, of mending what was lost, and what truly never was.
Sufjan draws upon historical, mythological, and Biblical references throughout each of his songs, interweaving them to depict his message with fantastical imagery. He draws upon amethyst, which was believed to protect one from his own drunkenness; maybe crying out for protection from drunkenness itself, or drunken grief. He is defeated, saying, "Well I suppose a friend is a friend / And we all know how this will end." Even those around him, as they try to ease his ailing, do not understand, and cannot fix what has torn away. In the end, he sees no real purpose, in even their own small lives are ever-fleeting.
He as well speaks of "chimney swifts," alluding to a group of Vaux's swifts that migrate to Oregon, as they continue their travels to South America. Perhaps their trails had left an imprint on Stevens' mind, something that stuck with him as a boy in Oregon. His forest of refuge is as well a simple silhouette now, as he tries desperately to move forward, all with the confusion of his loss. He tells us, "What is that song you sing for the dead?" He has nothing to offer, now, unsure of where to go from here.
In his final stanza, he finally mentions the one the entire album revolves around, his mother. In an interview, Sufjan explains, "It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of...Parenthood is a profound sacrifice. But I say to make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you… love is unconditional and incomprehensible. And I believe it’s possible to love absent of mutual respect." He harbors no bitterness, now. The one instance that keeps him afloat is his desire to love, and to forgive what was lost. He longs for her but knows, ultimately, everything must reach its final end.
She is but an apparition now, something that is only seen in fogginess, something untouchable.
He ends with the line "five red hens," perhaps giving reference to the fable of The Little Red Hen, the story of a little hen that labored hard, while the other animals looked on. This could be an allusion to the hard work that needed to be done after his mother's departure, in how each had to pull his weight.
This song and this entire album are full of mystery and allusion. It should be treated with care; with open eyes and sensitivity to detail. I hope "Carrie & Lowell" continues to mend wounds, and relate to humanity at large.