Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell, bursts at the seams with the most valuable resource for singer-songwriters: human feelings. By the end of the record, Stevens has covered an extraordinary amount of emotional ground. There’s nostalgia, there’s love and, above all else, there’s anguish.

This anguish, which Sufjan expresses in plain, simple language, never feels cheap or affected. Stevens, a Brooklyn-based artist, named the album after his mother — a schizophrenic drug addict who left him when he was a toddler — and his stepfather. After her death in 2012, Stevens was thrust into a spiral of grief, substance abuse and despair. Carrie & Lowell is the unflinchingly autobiographical product of his mourning.

Carrie’s ghost envelops these songs like a thick fog. Stevens sings of grief, death, blood, God, drug addiction, mental illness and suicide. “I’m chasing the dragon too far,” he sings despairingly in the album’s penultimate track, “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” — a declaration of his hollowness in the aftermath of his mother’s death. This kind of darkness isn’t all-consuming, however, Stevens weaves his sadness into his childhood memories of sunny summer visits to his mother in Oregon. The album’s constant dialogue between past and present creates a rich tapestry of memory, loss and reconciliation.

Upon first listen, this richness isn’t immediately apparent. Despite their emotional urgency, the songs themselves are slow, brooding, even plain. They are stripped bare of the literal bells and whistles of his previous albums. Gone are the whimsical orchestral arrangements of 2005’s Illinoise. Gone is the blaring techno-folk chaos of 2010’s Age of Adz. The few instruments featured have a tingling quietude about them. This sparse sound departs from his previous work, and it works. The skeletal nature of the instrumentation allows the honesty of his lyrics to breathe.

Stevens’ voice shimmers at the forefront of every song, giving shape to his pain, sounding more nude and vulnerable than ever before. It retains a gentle, crystalline beauty throughout the album, even with lines as confessional as “You checked your texts while I masturbated.” He scatters these kinds of unembellished confessional lyrics generously throughout the record. They pull the listener further into the record’s intimacy.

In “The Fourth of July,” he repeatedly croons, “We’re all gonna die,” a fact Stevens never lets his album’s listeners forget. The effectiveness of moments such as this cement Stevens’ status as one of the great, super-sad guitar boys of our time. These moments prove there’s a reason he’s so commonly compared to sad boy masters such as Nick Drake and Elliot Smith. Stevens, like them, is capable of distilling roiling oceans of beautiful pain into simple snippets of language and melody.

These snippets, along with the bracing minimalism of its instrumentation, give Carrie & Lowell its strange and shimmering kind of power. These songs hover in that gorgeous space between body and soul, mystery and enlightenment, anger and forgiveness. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings in the opening verse of the album. But he has already begun, and he continues going for another 10 songs. This is his journey. We’re lucky to be able to take it with him.

Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: Carrie & Lowell

Tracks: 11

Rating: 9/10

If you are going to have a bad month this year, make it February. It is the shortest month, often Austin’s coldest month and — for certain lonely singles — the saddest month. Whether you are celebrating love or sulking in isolation this Valentine’s Day, these artists have songs that touch on any emotion you
might experience. 

HAIM

This sister-turned-rock trio is right where they need to be. Despite having only one album under their belt, the Los Angeles natives had a year that would make any successful musician proud. HAIM spent 2013 and 2014 headlining musical festivals, such as Coachella, Austin City Limits and Glastonbury, and traveling for their Days are Gone tour. 

2015 looks even brighter for Este, Danielle and Alana Haim. For starters, the band was nominated for its first Grammy in the Best New Artist category, though they ultimately lost to Sam Smith. 

HAIM's latest fan? Taylor Swift. Swift recently announced via Instagram that HAIM will open for her on the 1989 tour.  

The trio’s album is loaded with ’80s pop-rock breakup songs perfect for a Valentine’s Day spent alone and perfect for contemplation generally.

Artists you might like — MS MR, Stevie Nicks, alt-J

Listen to Haim perform "The Wire": 

 

Sufjan Stevens

Not many musicians can pull off releasing psychedelic Christmas remixes or performing an hour-long set while donning fairy wings. The Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens did both and did them well. Next month, Stevens releases his seventh studio album, Carrie & Lowell, under his stepfather’s record label Asthmatic Kitty Records. 

It’s been five years since Stevens’ last non-Christmas album was released and fans are ravenous for his return. The 39-year-old has a strong following in Austin and tickets for his Bass Concert Hall show on May 12 sold out in minutes. At his best, Stevens’ songs are heavily instrumental and take a poetic and original look at topics of love and faith. 

Artists you might like — St. Vincent, Iron & Wine, Grizzly Bear

Watch the official album trailer for "Carrie & Lowell" now:

 

Bob Dylan

Tuesday marked the release of Bob Dylan’s thirty-sixth studio album, Shadows in the Night. Now available with an AARP discount on Amazon, Dylan’s album compiles ballads considerably slower than the songs that made him famous,  such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hurricane.” Some have argued that the slower, quieter pace of this album emphasizes Dylan’s weak vocals, but I’d argue the opposite. His voice is sweet like a grandfather’s who sings lullabies to his grandchildren (although at his worst, Dylan sounds like a tired Frank Sinatra or a Leonard Cohen cover artist). 

Luckily, the enigmatic crooner still has music in him, and, in an industry marked with record company debacles, Dylan still makes music with the label that put out his first album — Columbia Records.  

Artists you might like — Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell

Listen to Bob Dylan perform "Stay With Me," from his newest album:

 

Chaz Bundick

Chaz Bundick simply doesn’t stop. The 28-year-old formed his first indie band in high school and has since performed consistently under the stage names Toro y Moi and Les Sins. After releasing a number of albums as Toro y Moi, he took a break and spent the second half of 2014 touring and promoting Les Sins’ first album, Michael. The side project allowed him to explore electronic dance music without alienating his Toro y Moi fans. 

Last month, the South Carolina native announced his fourth studio album as Toro Y Moi. The album, What For?, featuring groovy, British ’60s-style pop song “Empty Nesters,” drops April 7. Bundick has hinted at eventually returning to his job as a graphic designer. For now, we should take all we can get from the indie-pop-chillwave-funk wunderkind. 

Artists you might like — Metronomy, Washed Out, Blood Orange 

“Empty Nesters” — Toro Y Moi

Listen to Toro Y Moi's "Empty Nesters": 

 

Tunesday

He’s written an orchestral masterpiece about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He’s titled a track after a serial killer clown. He famously committed himself to writing an album for every state in the U.S. after admitting it was a promotional gimmick in 2009.

Sufjan Stevens, needless to say, has a penchant for odd behavior. But on All Delighted People, an EP in name only (the run time is about 60 minutes long), Stevens trades in goofy antics for a serious, introspective and often dark look inside himself. Stevens’s label Asthmatic Kitty called the EP a “dramatic homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui and Paul Simon’s ‘The Sounds of Silence.’”

On the 17-minute epic “Djohariah,” a seemingly endless ode to gospel rock replete with experimental guitar solos and choir vocals, Stevens shifts the focus away from his songbird vocals and creates an atmosphere of nearly depressing introspection.

Stevens’s ability to create a compelling mix of classical music with a pop twist hasn’t declined in the last few years, and All Delighted People is evidence that we have yet to see his best. It’s a delicate, wafer-thin masterpiece of folky melodies and haunting harmonies.

For fans of: Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom

Grade: A