Sufjan Stevens’ latest work, Carrie & Lowell, is his most simply constructed album. For the most part, it is just him on guitar and maybe a few other instruments (on one song the other instrument is an air conditioner which provides a sense of loneliness on that song). This is also his most personal record. In a recent pitchfork article he stated:
“With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” he says, pulling at his sneaker’s red tongue. “It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”
By doing so, Sufjan is pulling back the floorboards and showing us his secrets. It’s a stunning triumph of an album. It could come off as just sadness and loneliness, but Stevens is too good of a songwriter to do this. By using landmarks and mythology as reference points, he makes this album universal to anyone that has had a loss in his life. In addition, the sparseness of musical instruments doesn’t mean Stevens lacks musical ideas. The music here is as gorgeous as anything he’s done.
Of course, I was fascinated to see how these songs would play live. Being such a personal set of songs, I wondered if he would shy away from playing or use them to process his feelings toward his mother. It was definitely the latter. Songs two through eleven were from Carrie & Lowell as well as the set’s final number. Some he just played by himself for a time, but his band would eventually flesh them out. Being a talented multi-instrumental artist, Stevens must have made many like-minded friends during his career. Each member of the band played at least two or three different instruments during the night. The new instrumentation on some songs gave the songs new meanings and new outlooks. “All of Me Wants All of You” could have fit in on the towering Age of Adz while “John the Beloved” was even more devastating than it is on the album. The first set’s closer “Blue Bucket of Gold” comes off as lullaby that leads into a dream on the album, but here with it’s pounding “A Day in the Life” coda reflects all the pain and heartache that was in Sufjan’s life until he says enough and ends the song.
He did play some older songs. Two of which were songs that got me hooked on Stevens were “That Dress Looks Nice on You” and “To Be Alone With You.” The latter song does what a whole genre keeps trying to do, make Christian music enjoyable for the masses. Stevens’ faith has always been a theme in his work, but his music never reaches the pandering of most “Christian” artists, which is probably why he rejects the title. His songs about faith are simple and heartfelt without feeling like preaching, but he doesn’t also shy away from questioning his beliefs. This especially true in the second to last song of the night, and my absolute favorite song by Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day.” The song, a maybe not true story of a friend’s losing battle to bone cancer, doesn’t shy away questioning why does God take away from us such beautiful people. The music here, again, also illustrates Stevens’ feelings in a way that his words might fail him. For this song, the music is angry, thankful, and joyous at the same time.
After a night of “music about death”, he said, since this was New Orleans, he had to play the one happy and joyful song in his canon. Of course, this meant “Chicago.” If I were to recommend any one song to anyone from any artist, it would be this song. While it’s not my favorite, it is the most joyous song I have ever heard. When it bursts into life, I can’t help but smile. Neither could the audience who could no longer contain their respectfulness and stood up and danced. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.
After an intense and focused first half, which featured the songs from Carrie & Lowell and no audience interaction, Sufjan interacted with the crowd quite a bit. A natural and educated storyteller, he shared stories (or myths) from his childhood. He was as funny and charming as he was focus and intense with the new material.
The show wasn’t perfect either. Twice during the encore he forgot the lyrics (the first time was after bragging about he didn’t need the lyrics and removed the lyric sheet). However, this was a perfect show for me. The setting, the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, matched the music beautifully. The light work were some of the best I’ve seen; it was only rivaled by people definitely have much larger budgets.
Even though the music and mood could be heavy, the energy at the end of the show couldn’t help but a smile on your face.