The virtuoso behind Illinoise brings his heartache to Massey Hall
by Andrew Johnson
SUFJAN STEVENS SINGS: “We’re all gonna die.” It's the final refrain of “Fourth of July” from Carrie & Lowell, his latest and certainly bravest record. Though death and loss are at the centre of Carrie & Lowell, this is a record about living, surviving and trying to make sense of the deeply complicated relationships that define a life.
The narrative frame for Carrie & Lowell, as offered up by Stevens himself in interviews with Pitchfork and The Guardian, is that his mother Carrie lived with serious mental illness and addictions, and that her death in 2012 pushed Stevens to try to make sense of the loss, and of his childhood both with and without her. Some time after leaving the family when Sufjan was a year old, Carrie married a man named Lowell and lived in Portland, Oregon. The brief stability of that relationship allowed Carrie to reconnect with Sufjan and his older siblings. Long holiday stays with his mother and stepfather between the ages of five and eight impressed the boy and helped to shape the man. After Carrie and Lowell split, Carrie’s life became particularly difficult and precarious with only sporadic contact with Sufjan’s family. Steven’s connection to Lowell though, buttressed by a mutual love of music, remained to the point that the two continue to work together to operate the Asthmatic Kitty record label.
The intimacy of Carrie & Lowell is a departure for Stevens. His best-known records, the highly literate, musically dense chamber pop of Greetings from Michigan! (2003) and Illinoise (2005), packed full of trumpets, English horns and weird percussion, presented Stevens as a narrative songwriter with a gift for mythologizing place. There he sang empathetically of John Wayne Gacy, Abraham Lincoln, unemployment and the tragedy of Detroit. Listeners were so impressed by the scale of the records and power of the songs that a self-perpetuating rumour started that Stevens was two records into a survey of every state of the union. Whether or not such a project was taken seriously by Stevens is beside the point; the projects were so precocious and the songs felt so spontaneous, it seemed plausible that Stevens could actually pull it off.
Between Michigan! and Illinoise came Seven Swans, his most overtly religious record, which as a set of acoustic folk songs is the sonic precursor to Carrie & Lowell. Its place in his discography helps make the argument that while he may be capable of devoting himself to a massive undertaking like a 50 states project, Stevens’s career is that of someone who is musically and thematically restless. From the world folk sounds of The Sun Came (1999) to the experimental electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001) that played with the Chinese zodiac, to the orchestral The BQE (2009), an over-reaching live orchestral performance about the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, introspection and confessional song writing have been the exception with Stevens rather than the rule. Even his Christianity is treated with a goofy playfulness in his two massive, wildly uneven, Christmas records, Songs for Christmas (2006) and Silver and Gold (2012). Locating Stevens himself has been something of a challenge, until of course we arrive at Carrie & Lowell; when we finally find him, he’s lost. In “Should Have Known Better,” he sings: “When I was three, three maybe four/ She left us at that video store.” The forays into history and myth are traded for a more treacherous journey—into his past.
So how do you perform Carrie & Lowell with its songs so personal and so quiet that they sound like they were written for an audience of one? At his Massey Hall show in Toronto last week, Stevens began at the piano with an older song, “Redford,” a spare, elegiac instrumental, and then moved into “Death with Dignity,” which opens Carrie & Lowell: “Spirit of my silence I can hear you/But I’m afraid to be near you/ And I don’t know where to begin.” It is a song that summarizes Stevens’s approach on the record: that the loss was great, and that he is fearful of visiting that loss because there is no panacea for this sort of pain. Yet what was most striking was that the performance of these songs was unmistakably infused with acceptance, warmth and love, rather than anger. When he sang, “you’ll never see us again” at the end of “Death with Dignity,” what came through was not bitterness, but a generous evocation of the enormity of his mother’s suffering.
Stevens has also enlisted a quartet of multi-instrumentalists to dress up the stripped-down sound of Carrie & Lowell. On “Should Have Known Better” and “John My Beloved”, the band allowed the quiet of the originals to give way to a fuller sound, complete with loop and keyboard effects that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on his last record, The Age of Adz (2010). On “Fourth of July,” the refrain “we’re all going to die” was sung by the band, effectively underlining the point of the line—death may be solo, but since we’ve all got to do it, we might as well make a choir out of it.
The stage was draped with screens, onto which were projected super-8 home movies of moody west coast shorelines, a wedding, kids swimming. Rather than conjure a sense of nostalgia, the images underscored just how alive Stevens’s past still is. And in the face of that past, Stevens delivered a performance where the shame he felt as a child had been transformed into mature acceptance and forgiveness—and into music. Even when he shrugged “Fuck me I’m falling apart,” from “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” a line that anyone familiar with the record was waiting for all night, it was not the sound of a man who is out of control, but of someone determined to keep it together despite the feeling that it is all slipping away.
Before bringing out the crowd-pleaser “Chicago” from Illinoise to close out the Massey Hall encores, Stevens tipped his hat both to Neil Young, standing on the same stage where one of Young’s most famous concerts made musical history, and to his stepfather Lowell who had given a younger Sufjan a bootleg recording from the same tour. Fittingly, Stevens chose to cover “There’s a World”, which he described as “probably one of the worst songs on Harvest… and it’s still better than anything that I will write in my entire life.” With its opening lines “There’s a world you’re living in/ No one else has your part/ All God’s children in the wind/ take it in and blow real hard,” Stevens was paying both Young and his stepfather the best kind of tribute: proving they’d been heard.
ANDREW JOHNSON's criticism has appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, Canadian Art, Border Crossings, Lola, and popmatters.