Pain sounds better when it’s exaggerated.
There’s a self-evident history of music romanticizing pain: torch songs for abandoned relationships, dirges for tragic deaths, pleading hymns hoping to persuade. Dusty Springfield clawing at the ankles of a disinterested man walking out the door. Bonnie Raitt singing from the perspective of a man who shot his wife’s lover. There’s also a history of pain in Sufjan Stevens’ own discography: the desolation of 2003’s Michigan, the helplessness of "To Be Alone With You." But for Stevens, this pain has tended toward the universal, altruistic. It morphs the characters in his albums from lost, weary souls into messianic beings. He’s made a career out of catapulting dejected idols into untouchable, almost holy spaces. Even John Wayne Gacy Jr., the bloated serial killer remembered as a circus clown, becomes a character worth of empathy on 2005’s Illinoise. But on Carrie & Lowell (out March 31st on Asthmatic Kitty), all this pain is Sufjan's, and Sufjan's alone.
Sufjan Stevens will turn 40 years old this year. A generation of life-worn musicians is growing up, but the existential fear and loneliness that paralyzed their youth is still there, twisting up their guts. The problem is, all-consuming angst is a lot tougher to reconcile once you're flirting with middle age.
Carrie & Lowell — named after Stevens’ mother and step-father — features characters that are not easy to save. Stevens' mother left his family when he was only a year old; she died of stomach cancer in 2012 after battling alcoholism and depression for most of her life. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Stevens said, "Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable." Stevens has trouble finding humanity in Carrie and Lowell as they exist on the album, and when he does, he realizes it’s exactly their humanity that makes them flawed. Unlike the material on Stevens' past albums, humanity in Carrie & Lowell isn’t an equaling force, it’s a destructive one. So Stevens, instead of mythologizing people, mythologizes pain.
Instead of mythologizing people, Stevens mythologizes pain
That Sufjan Stevens made this album in 2015 indicates a tipping point towards an emotional revival in pop. Sure, you could argue that there are as many kinds of emo as there are people adamant about which kind is the right kind. Carrie & Lowell isn't strictly an evolution that extends from Jawbox's Midwestern angst or New York foursome Texas is the Reason's beta-male cries. But years later, it fills a gap those bands left open when they broke up.
Stevens' first album, A Sun Came, was released in 2000 — the same year as Bright Eyes' gut-wrenching Fevers and Mirrors. Sufjan's woodsy prayers were the antidote to Conor Oberst's strung-out eulogies. Sufjan Stevens didn't sound like Bright Eyes, but their audience had a high crossover: sad kids from suburbia convinced that being born in a landlocked state was the worst kind of fate.
Sufjan Stevens has never been an "emo" artist, but here he actively seeks pain as his subject matter in ways he hasn't before. Carrie & Lowell is an album about death. It’s simultaneously one of the most obvious and most unknowable parts of life, but Stevens doesn’t try to understand it, he just records and replays it. We like to think of artists as tortured souls capable of comprehending life's frustrations on higher intellectual planes than our own; we hope they'll translate their findings into something tangible. But there’s no translation here. Nothing is lost, but nothing is gained either. Like emo, Carrie & Lowell is almost embarrassingly blunt about its feelings. If early 2000s garage rock drowned its feelings in flat beer and chillwave muddled them with foggy effects, Stevens strips them bare, foregoing any opportunity for subtlety.
The album opens with "Death with Dignity," a delicate, finger-plucked song that makes it clear Sufjan is shedding the electronic wonk of 2010’s The Age of Adz. "I forgive you mother / I can hear you," he sings with a strained softness, "But every road leads to an end."
Stevens is a devout Christian, and his religious fervor hasn’t waned — it’s just less optimistic. Even biblical figures in Carrie & Lowell are relegated to the status of flawed personhood. In "Drawn to the Blood," he sings, "For my prayer has always been love / What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?" There’s an emotional dissonance in Carrie & Lowell, a shifting, as if Stevens is afraid the ground will fall out from under him if he stays in the same place for too long. In "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross," Stevens is bitter ("fuck me, I’m falling apart"); in "Should Have Known Better," he’s cautiously regretful ("I never trust my feelings"); in "All of Me Wants All of You," he’s invisible ("I’m just a ghost you walk right through"). But at the core of all of these feelings is a simple, heavy despair. If you keep wallowing in it, being lost starts to feel safe.
Body mutilation comes up often on Carrie & Lowell — it's a theme that was practically a requirement of '90s emo. "Should I tear my eyes out now? / Everything returns to you somehow / Should I tear my heart out now?" Sufjan asks on "The Only Thing." Saves the Day asked similar questions back in 1999 on "Rocks Tonic Juice Magic": "I'll take my rusty spoons, dig out your blue eyes" and "My heart is on the floor / Why don't you step on it?" straddle the song. "Rocks Tonic Juice Magic" sounds nothing like "The Only Thing." The first is desperately loud, practically screeching in pain, while the second is hushed, solemn. On Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens disguises emo as a more digestible form of its younger self.
Stevens is hyper-literate, and his wordiness mocks his own idiosyncrasies: "There’s only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking I’m dead," he sings in "The Only Thing." His qualification of his own death might be funny if it weren’t so crushingly sad. The album’s final track, "Blue Bucket of Gold," is so instrumentally sparse — there’s just one plodding piano — that you can hear the pull of saliva as Stevens' lips part. This is the evolutionary sonic equivalent of a teenage wail, but it's dignified. It doesn't feel too loudly.
It's good sad
The album reaches its lowest point, emotionally speaking, on "Eugene." It feels airier than the rest of Carrie & Lowell; Stevens’ fingers sound light on his guitar. But near the end of the song, the gravity-free instrumentation starts to feel like the sun during a hangover. The sound is too bright to contain what Stevens is saying: "For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me / Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away." The idea of running away from it all, or somehow erasing the surrounding world, is another emo tick. Sunny Day Real Estate's 2000 song "Faces in Disguise" offers, "We'd throw the world away with all its pain." And if there's one lesson learned in Carrie & Lowell, it's that the world will, eventually, go away.
Carrie & Lowell, like music from emo's golden era, basks in the purity of pain, and can’t help but crumble under the slightest weight. It’s exaggerated, but pain is an exaggerated feeling. There's nothing so wholly average and intensely personal as pain. And while more than a decade ago, other bands turned their torment into frantic battle cries, Sufjan Stevens is suffering with quiet dignity.