Review: Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell' NPR's music critic Will Hermes reviews the deeply personal new album by Sufjan Stevens titled Carrie & Lowell.
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Review: Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell'

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Review: Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell'

Review

Music Reviews

Review: Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell'

Review: Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell'

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NPR's music critic Will Hermes reviews the deeply personal new album by Sufjan Stevens titled Carrie & Lowell.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Musician Sufjan Stevens has never shied away from difficult subjects. His new album explores his relationship with his late mother. She struggled with addiction and mental illness and left her family when Stevens was a year old. The album is titled "Carrie And Lowell," and our critic Will Hermes has this review.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: For a guy known for his gentle sound, Sufjan Stevens explores pretty rough terrain. One older song bears witness to a friend dying of bone cancer. Another finds empathy for mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Much of his new album addresses his absent mother. She's the "Carrie" in the album's title and she died in late 2012. It's certainly his most personal record and it's about as emotionally unclothed as music gets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH WITH DIGNITY")

SUFJAN STEVENS: (Singing) I forgive you mother. I can hear you and I want to be near you. But every road leads to an end. Yes, every road leads to an end. Your apparition passes through me in the willows.

HERMES: Stevens has spoken about his hope that this music doesn't come off as indulgent or exhibitionistic. And it's a fair concern - the album walks a fine line. One of the things that keeps it all in check are his writing skills, his eye for detail - lemon yogurt, a dropped ashtray, a reference to Casper the ghost and also his subtle sense of humor. At one point, he remembers a man making fun of his name, a small aside that helps balance an otherwise very heavy song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUGENE")

STEVENS: (Singing) The man who taught me to swim, he couldn't quite say my first name. Like a father he led community water on my head and he called me Subaru. And now I want to be near you.

HERMES: At other points, especially during an explicit song about suicidal thoughts and this one about escaping into a pharmacopeia, "Carrie And Lowell" can be tough going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SHADE IN THE SHADOW OF THE CROSS")

STEVENS: (Singing) Drag me to hell in the valley of the Dalles. Like my mother, give wings to a stone. It's only the shadow of a cross.

HERMES: Illuminating everything on the album even when the light is dim is Stevens's Christian faith and his unerring musicality, which shines as brightly as it ever has in spite of - or maybe because of - how spare this music is. Mostly, it's just the sound of a guitar and a beautifully tender voice grieving and trying to communicate with the mother he never really knew and also with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER")

STEVENS: (Singing) I should have known better to see what I could see. My black shroud holding down my feelings, a pillar for my enemies.

CORNISH: The new album by Sufjan Stevens is "Carrie And Lowell." Our critic Will Hermes is the author of the book, "Love Goes To Buildings On Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER")

STEVENS: (Singing) My black shroud. I never trust my feelings. I waited for the remedy.

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