Saturday 20 January 2018


How apt that we should be engaging with Sufjan Stevens' latest thematic collection on Easter Week.

No one denies the man's a genius when it comes to musical composition. Ten albums of stunning diversity, engaging invention and memorable melody have established Stevens as an adventurous creative maverick with an ability to be blindingly brilliant.

On the eve of the Christian feast of Resurrection, he releases an album that reminds us: "We're all gonna die".

This dazzling piece of work will be in the running for Album of the Year if we're still around to debate it.

What is it about boys and their mammies?


John Lennon's undertook primal scream therapy before writing the haunting Julia, which appeared on the Fabs' white album. Despite Paul Simon's explanation that Mother and Child Reunion was inspired by a chicken-and-egg dish on a Chinese restaurant menu, I remain suspicious about what went on that "strange and mournful day."

In Sufjan's case, the death of his mother, Carrie, who left him with his father when he was still just a baby is the catalyst for some serious soul-searching.

Over 11 songs, he forensically examines his emotions. While not a bundle of laughs, it's extremely seductive.

The stripped-down sound is folky but Stevens' sophisticated compositional skills, and intimate double-tracked vocals, elevates songs to the level of classical pop.

"When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store.." he recalls on Should Have Known Better, a track that echoes Laura Veirs' remarkable Carbon Glacier album.

It's said there are five stages to grieving. Denial and isolation. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. And, finally, acceptance. Into that pot, Sufjan Stevens throws a few more, including self-loathing and forgiveness.

His mother had suffered from bipolar disorder and substance abuse.

A warm wash of ambient synths envelope the whispered, "What could I have said to raise you from the dead?" on Fourth of July.

Each song teases out an oblique narrative as Stevens reflects on his childhood and missed opportunities. John My Beloved comes closest to a Lal Waterson-style folk melody. And is equally mysterious and provocative.

The Christian community yearns to embrace Stevens as a poster boy but his mix of biblical imagery frequently slides into classical myth and urban decadence. On the gentle folk Mass hymn, No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross he reveals, "I'm chasing the dragon too far .. f**k me, I'm falling apart."

This is musical salvation.

Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitten)

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