Back in 2004 I came upon a New York Times magazine article mentioning the musical artist Sufjan Stevens. His album “Michigan: The Great Lake State” had been out for a while, and radio airplay had been plentiful on the college and NPR based stations on the dial. (Or digital dial if you want to be more specific. Internet Radio, that is.)
“Michigan” was a revelation. A bittersweet, emotionally sweeping look into hearts of mid-western defeat, family trouble, painful partings and lost dreams. Sufjan was a storyteller, illustrating the difficult pattern of hearts and minds blown asunder, but through the rubble of economic breakdowns and family upheaval, the tender vocals, the sensitive banjos and charming effects lay a bit of sunshine and hope – where deep in the greatest loss, one finds redemption. Spiritual strength is woven dearly throughout this work. Stevens is a devout Christian who never preaches, but sings of how his faith is applied to challenges. He questions God, himself and everything around him without judging the characters he creates to tell the story, without bible thumping. Stevens’ faith is of a zen like nature.
In 2005, Stevens’ follow up album “Illinois” was in the same vein – this time an ode to the great state that was a virtual operetta of bustling rhythms and marching band inflections. There was a mixture of laughter and sadness. Funny songs about UFO’s, Zombies, or towns like Jacksonville and Decatur, where step moms show kids the coolest things and Abraham Lincoln deserved a big pat on the back. Then, there were songs dark songs like “Casimir Pulaski Day” where a young love dies of cancer, or , “John Wayne Gacy” with lyrics peeking into the life of this demonic clown serial killer, his life and the people who knew him.
Although Stevens has a large discography of major work “Seven Swans”, The Age of Adz” and a prolific set of Christmas albums originally created for friends and family – then released to the public – I chose the two albums above because they show Stevens as his true self – a musician with a remarkable gift to tell a story.
In his latest album “Carrie & Lowell” he continues to paint a picture of his life in lyrics touching upon the universal human issue we all must face some time in our life. The death of a loved one.
Sufjan’s mother Carrie was mentally ill and a substance abuser who left Sufjan and his siblings when he was only one – seeing her from time to time throughout his childhood, flashes of memory that has come up in Stevens’ songs for years. As a listener, you knew something was up. He never revealed the details until now. “Carrie & Lowell” was created after his mother died in 2012 of stomach cancer. As the son of a mother who held a vast chasm of problems, this album not only defines the story we barely made out in his previous work, but it shines a bright light on the sadness he endured as a child who not only lost his mother when she was alive – but lost her entirely.
All songwriters are storytellers. The open source of creativity flows through them as their lives unfold and deciphered into words fit for a listeners looking to find common ground. But Sufjan Stevens’ is a story teller of every generation of lost souls whose family life never found a solid foundation until they grew up and realized how it made them an artist.
“Carrie & Lowell” is out now on iTunes or the online website of your choice. Why not sample it via Sufjan’s record company website AsthmaticKitty.com.
Sufjan shared his personal story in depth here in an interview with Pitchfork Media:
The Most played Sufjan Stevens song on my music library: