HALFWAY THROUGH SUFJAN STEVENS’ plaintive, late-night reflection of an album, the Detroit-born, Brooklyn-based songwriter’s longing for his late mother leads to a bittersweet memory. “The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my name,” sings Stevens on Eugene, in a tone gentle enough to suggest he holds no grudge for his swimming teacher’s linguistic deficiencies. “Like a father he led community water on my head, and he called me Subaru/Now I want to be near you.”
“Morbid anxieties and religious confusions rain down on the songs.”
That sense of innocence lost, of losing not just someone but something, runs through Carrie & Lowell. Named after his mother and his stepfather, Stevens’ best work in his 20-year career carries the bewilderment of an adult thrown off balance by the death of a parent. Morbid anxieties and religious confusions rain down on the songs. Stevens throws in the odd swear word, he even mentions masturbation, but he never sounds toughened by life. “We’re all going to die,” he intones in the coda to Fourth Of July, but in a way that suggests he’s simply reminding himself of life’s finite reality. With his double-tracked semi-whisper carrying the melodies, his deft acoustic guitar and banjo lines, and his overriding belief in the worth of a well-constructed, mid-tempo tune, Stevens comes across more as little boy lost than harbinger of doom.
Much of the album features Stevens weighing up the significance of early experiences. “When I was three, three, maybe four, she left us at that video store,” he sings on the beautifully haunting Should Have Known Better. He has spoken in the past about his parents’ trial-and-error approach to raising children, of changing everything from houses to religions every few years. Both were briefly members the Subud spiritual movement, whose leader gave him his exotic forename. They left when Stevens was one, split up three years later, and their six children spent summers in Oregon with their mother and stepfather and the rest of the year with their father and stepmother in Michigan.
Stevens’ mother and stepfather feature on the album’s cover, smiling out of a cracked photograph. The inner sleeve has a photograph of Stevens when he was a boy, half-eaten banana in hand, staring uncertainly at the camera. That uncertain little boy has gone on to make a tender, affecting album that, through its jumble of religious allusions, nature imagery, classical references, half-remembered visions and overwhelming sense of loss, has a simple message. “For my prayer has always been love,” sings Stevens on Drawn To The Blood – a prayer that cuts through everything else on Carrie & Lowell.