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How To Be Alone: Musicians Confront Solitude

Sufjan Stevens' album Carrie & Lowell is out this week.

Sufjan Stevens' album Carrie & Lowell is out this week. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

In his formal, disarmingly humble way, Sufjan Stevens accomplishes something remarkable in the first notes of his new album, Carrie & Lowell. After a Bach-like interlude plucked on a ukulele, Stevens opens this confessional meditation on mourning and reconciliation with a characteristic whisper. "Spirit of my silence, I can hear you," he sings, going straight up a major scale as if this were a morning matin in some folk mass-obsessed abbey. "But I'm afraid to be near you, and I don't know where to begin." It's logical to assume that the spirit he invokes is that of Carrie, the mentally ill mother who abandoned him as a child and died, still mostly a mystery, in 2012. It's she, along with the second husband she also abandoned, who gives the album its title. But reviewers have been picking up on that first line for a different reason. It's a challenge Stevens poses to himself, to make space for a presence that continually gets lost in the human shuffle. This idiosyncratically Christian artist might call that presence God, but he could also call it beauty, or inspiration, or vastness, or solitude, or even nothing — all the names for the unnameable that artists and holy people have conjured over the years.

It's never been easy, in the modern world, to sit with the unnameable. The extremes people embrace in order to simply be united with, and humbled by, creation are the subject of a huge body of literature stretching from ancient texts to today's self-help e-books, and of visual art and theater ranging from Hitsuzendo calligraphy to Meredith Monk's performance art. Music is a paradox within this pursuit: It fills the empty space of solitude even as it stimulates a desire for it. (The first promotional push for Carrie & Lowell came in the form of "silent listening parties" where people sat "alone" together in record stores and galleries worldwide, absorbing the music on headphones.) And it serves as a vehicle for narratives, but it always pulls against those stories, sometimes even noisily overwhelming them. "I think it's who we are as human beings, storytelling," Stevens told an interviewer in 2006. "People love to talk about themselves and about their lives and about their day, and everything has a narrative interest to it. That said, I think music is a supernatural kind of abstract form that transcends all of that."

For a writer like Stevens, who usually stresses patterns and mythologies within his work, the turn toward autobiography is risky. It opens the door to fetishization, something Stevens already has to deal with because of his good looks and invitingly gentle performance style. In the era of pop music, many artists people mention as embodying solitude have very noisy personal narratives indeed — they are troubled figures like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, both possible suicides, or ones who consciously cultivated singular paths parallel to their natural communities, like Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Cohen, famous for his devotion to Zen, is a star of the essayist Pico Iyer's recent TED-sponsored book on secular solitude, The Art of Stillness — the prime example of a meditative life that can still make room for major concert tours, Courvoisier and the occasional "beautiful young companion." Iyer writes of hearing Cohen's croaky late masterpiece, Old Ideas, in a Starbuck's in downtown Los Angeles, and ponders, "Cohen seemed to be bringing us bulletins from somewhere more rooted than the CNN newsroom, and to be talking to us, as the best friends do, without varnish or evasion or design." To be open to his plain words, though, it helps to know that Cohen's been perfecting it for half a century. His biography is a key to understanding his messages, but it's also something of a distraction.

Younger artists who take solitude or silence as a theme do so knowing how difficult it is to even approach such matters without immediately negating their core meaning. What's unusual about Carrie & Lowell is the way it wrestles with biography while also holding it at a distance, as Stevens has in all its work. He's said that the album is "not my art project; it's my life," a statement that sounds like half a modest admission and half an excuse. But it's not true — Carrie & Lowell is as carefully designed and formally ambitious as were much grander-seeming endeavors like the electronics-based Age of Adz or his short-lived but very fruitful (he only did two, great, albums) Fifty States project. Its minimalist arrangements, created not alone in fact but in partnership with his longtime friend and collaborator Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett, invoke not folk music so much as the sources that signal introspection for many listeners: hymns and plainsong; Brian Eno's ambient soundtracks; the yeshiva school solemnity of early Simon & Garfunkel. (And, yes, Elliott Smith, who like Stevens was a formalist more obsessed with tone than with narrative.) In his lyrics, Stevens pursues two main themes: how grief distorts memory, turning it into shards of insight mingled with fiction; and how mourning becomes its own strange pilgrimage, often leading people into self-abnegating pursuits like sexual excess and self-harm as, crushed by guilt and terrified by loss, they pursue dangerous supposed distractions that are really necessary encounters with the void.

Songs like "Beloved of John" and "All Of Me Wants All of You," intentionally or not, recall the holy perversity of works by Baudelaire or Jean Genet, or even James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, in which erotic encounters are a kind of cleansing by fire. In "The Only Thing," Stevens recounts himself as saved from suicide through moments of grace conveyed within the shape of the stars or a water stain in a hotel room bathtub. But it is his clasp of the razor, of the car wheel almost taking him off the road, that allows for redemption. Negating piety, admitting perversion, Stevens opens himself up to the salvation of emptiness: "Blind faith, God's grace, nothing else to impart."

Tracing the confusion and the enlightenment that mourning and isolation invite, Stevens joins a handful of other artists returning solitude to the center of the musical conversation this year. It's a difficult subject to approach honestly in 2015, not only because being alone often feels impossible within contemporary society's wireless matrix, but because the experience is so often commodified, reduced to the price tag on a yoga mat or the itemized bill for a faux-monastic spa retreat. Yet the best albums of this season consider both the costs of isolation and the value of pursuing it.

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Kendrick Lamar's epic To Pimp a Butterfly would at first seem to be the opposite of Stevens's compact and delicate work. Yet as many of those praising the album have noted, Lamar's first effort post-serious fame is deeply informed by a sense of alienation. "There are dozens of collaborators on To Pimp a Butterfly, but there is only one author," Sean Fennessy noted in Grantland. "Round and round he goes, a continuous loop of alone." Oliver Wang's All Things Considered review concluded with an image of Lamar as always hovering both above and below the Black America his music thickly evokes in sounds and images, even though he remains a part of it — he's a kind of ghost of inequality and hope, past, present and future. More specifically, Lamar has been compared to the triumvirate of African-American writers at the center of mid- 20th-century American literature, all influenced by European existentialist philosophy: Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. As those writers did in their novels, Lamar creates a main character on To Pimp A Butterfly who is both alienated by racism and consciously endeavoring to stand apart, more in dialogue with myth and history than with those who would bait and degrade him in daily life. In songs like "For Sale?" and the Sufjan Stevens-sampling "Hood Politics," Lamar finds both strength and great personal cost in his quest to absorb and reflect the process through which African-American men are both made and ruined by capitalist America. If on Carrie & Lowell Stevens separates himself, in grief, to ultimately undergo a spiritual transformation, on Butterfly Lamar does the same thing in anger, in order to become more effective as a political force.

Lamar, who like Stevens is a Christian, views the spiritual aspect of his quest as an ongoing encounter with the ancestors who uplift and challenge him. He speaks to many non-corporeal beings throughout the album, which begins with an image of him alone, masturbating to thoughts of a lost first love and concludes with a long dialogue between Lamar and his long-dead role model Tupac Shakur, ingeniously constructed using old interview material. He absorbs the identity of television's most famous slave in "King Kunta" and, in several songs, fights off a female devil figure he calls Lucy (as Anwen Crawford astutely suggests in The New Yorker, Lamar's inspiring embrace of his African patrimony on Butterfly is matched by a nascent fear of the tempting feminine.) The two most intimate songs on the album are inner monologues (or, since Lamar embraces the existentialist idea of a fragmented self, conversations): the life-affirming "i" and the dark-night rumination "u." And on an album whose funk connections flow as deep as the sea, several key moments feature only the human voice. These punctuating semi-silences make the point that, while music is the great sustainer of African-American culture and spiritual health, stepping away from it can also sometimes be rejuvenating in itself: a way of making space to better grasp the harsh realities that music helps people survive.

For all of its swagger and motion, To Pimp a Butterfly counters a notable lack of portrayals of African-American male interior lives in our culture. bell hooks has noted that most such depictions encourage the idea that "real [black] men are all body and no mind." She recalled dealing with a white male illustrator's draft images for one of her books: "I noticed that many of the images were of black boys in motion, running, jumping, playing; I requested images of black boys being still, enjoying solitude, reading." Kendrick Lamar is a physically dexterous rapper, but he really stands out as a man whose thoughts fly faster than his feet, especially in spaces where he can be alone. Even the sometimes excruciating conflict he endures within the scenes he crafts feels like a tonic, because like his imagined mentor Shakur, he demands solitude as a fundamental right, a way of recognizing his own divinely sparked humanity.

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For the British folk-now-rock musician Laura Marling, solitude is also a right to be claimed, but she wants to feel it in motion. Her fifth album, Short Movie, is in the vein of women wanderers' manifestoes like Cheryl Strayed's wilderness adventure Wild, Joni Mitchell's Hejira (to which it's being continually compared) and Chrissie Hynde's first album with the Pretenders. Musically, it's a band album, unlike many of Marling's more acoustic earlier efforts; story-wise, it takes the 25-year-old expatriate from lover to lover and weird scene to weird scene as she travels in an America full of signposts she must mark as her own and roadblocks — most of them human, and male — she must negotiate.

"Is it still okay that I don't know how to be? Alone?" she sings in the first line of the steadily frantic single "False Hope," cutting the sentence into subject-verb and predicate, as if to answer her own question: There is no being unless you can stand apart. In another song, "Walk Alone," Marling worries that her desire for a new lover has robbed her of the ability to even take a step without him; in a third, "I Feel Your Love," she asks that man (or maybe it's another) to "keep your love around me so I can't be alone." There's a Lamar-style internal argument going on in these lyrics: Marling craves interdependency, but also chafes against it, knowing that the old story of the mastered young woman continually threatens to envelop her. The music is furiously paced, centered around Marling's fleet, aggressive guitar picking, which keeps her band in frenetic pursuit. It sounds like she is birthing herself, and she is often enraged by the process — not only by the cluelessness of the men with whom she wants to stay but who can't handle her whole being, but with herself by being so scattered, so scared, so full of herself but still uncertain about where that self begins and ends.

Like Stevens, Marling favors imagery culled from myths and other esoteric sources. Like Lamar, she is aware that her most personal struggles reflect inequities that go well beyond her time and place. She imagines herself as a daughter of the Sufi mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in one song, and as a "horse with no name," whom no warrior can ride, in another. Her metaphors invoke a long history of feminist imaginings. In the gorgeously sad love song, "Howl," she reminds listeners that women's solitude has often served to protect others over whom they stand watch: "The long tears of women are silent," she sings, so they won't wake those who sleep."

Marling longs to walk and wake alone, but also dreads doing so, because in solitude, all of one's foibles become clear, even as a path toward a less habit-ridden way of being beckons. "Loving you is complicated," Lamar says to his own ego in "u," lovingly clinging to the weaknesses that intermingle with his ambition and his integrity. The social world, for all of its fundamental gifts — love, empathy, the lessons arguing provides — obscures the whole self, allowing each of us to mute what is harder to absorb about ourselves in a din of habit and distraction. When an artist breaks through that din, which seems to grow ever louder, she reflects solitude's crisis: the challenge of being, unmasked.

"I wanted to be quiet in a nonquiet situation," the composer John Cage wrote in 1948, while he was still formulating a solution that would eventually lead to his famous innovation of writing music with no notes at all. In 1949, the most famous monk of the last century — Thomas Merton — lamented that even cloistered religious people had become too conscious of what their renunciations might do, keeping silence as a form of payback for all the clatter in the world, instead of accessing the real self that was no self, that couldn't show off by fasting or rising at midnight to sing. In 1961, as part of a dialogue with the Zen master D.T. Suzuki, Merton found it necessary to remind the era's many spiritual seekers that Paradise, if not Heaven, was a place on earth that could only be achieved by ceasing the constant reactivity that had become the human condition, "the emptiness and purity of heart which had belonged to Adam and Eve in Eden," where they sought "paradise within themselves, or rather above and beyond themselves." This was the same goal the secular pilgrim Cheryl Strayed sought when she walked 1100 miles alone up the Pacific Crest Trail in 1994. She found liberation from self while lost above the treeline, shouting into silence she ultimately couldn't affect, realizing, was she wrote in her memoir, "Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself. The sky didn't wonder where it was."

If Stevens, in his devotion to beauty and to craft, ultimately retains his monklike demeanor (please read Fenton Johnson's essay in the current issue of Harper's for more on how such practices thrive in the secular world) and Lamar stands out as a politicized existentialist, Marling joins writers like Strayed in adding to the literature of women's liberation through solitude. Wandering the Pacific Coast Trail where she became a temporary hermit, survivalist and explorer — all roles that, for centuries, were primarily associated with men — Strayed realizes at one point in her journey that true solitude has changed her very definition of aloneness. She recognizes it as a form of connection, not privacy; as a way of inhabiting her real self by seeing how permeable are its boundaries. "Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was," she writes. "Alone wasn't a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before." This is the ultimate goal of genuine solitude, and the subject of the music inspired by it: to reveal how human beings are ever a part of what flows through and around them, even apart from it.

Correction April 16, 2015

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the title of Laura Marling's song "I Feel Your Love" as "How Can I" and called Short Movie Marling's seventh album. It is her fifth.

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