“You checked your texts while I masturbated” is not a lyric you expect to hear trundled so calmly off Sufjan Stevens’ tongue in the elegiac album to his mother. I hasten to add the line is (presumably) about a girlfriend – but hard-hitting candour is the gravitational pull of an otherwise hauntingly ephemeral collection. Departing from the famous violin crescendos of ‘Chicago’ from Illinois (2005), Stevens’ seventh studio album Carrie and Lowell, drops several gears, but this confessional homage to his mother and stepfather demands (and deserves) so much more than the label ‘easy-listening’. Raw ordinariness and blunt grief are sprinkled with glorious drops of mythology and poetry. Whilst so soothing it is also a busy, highly populated album; it’s often hard to identify an addressee – mothers, girlfriends, step-fathers, but the universal appeal is strong and surprising.
At first I felt like an intruder, flicking through a meticulously composed family photo album, but it isn’t long before Stevens’ tentative, husky vocals and bold lyricism lure you in. You think honesty is glaring – a cathartic scream, a crash of cymbals, but the shock comes from the opposite. “We’re all going to die” are megaphone-worthy words, but the melodic chords pulse sweetly and stoically on in my personal favourite, ‘Fourth of July’. The impact is always felt through Steven’s resigned, but not despairing, deliverance. Warning: Tear ducts will be targeted. A whispered conversation with hismother, or his ‘star in the sky’, features the jolting simplicity of: “make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is life.”
At times, Bon Iver leaks in, and there’s a trace of Simon & Garfunkel, particularly in the titular song. Combinations of piano, acoustic guitar and banjo smoothly introduce most of the tracks – think ‘Going to California’ before Robert Plant wades in. I will definitely revisit this album. Some might find it quite repetitive, but I think that’s the point, and it’s not like anyone of us can tell Steven’s how he should grieve.