Subtle, hypnotic, and compellingly God-centered "Christian music"
Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell, set for a March 31 release date and available now for pre-order, sounds fascinating:
“These are aggressive times. Each morning we awaken to a psychic blitz of breaking news, social outrage, and millions of images and voices shrieking look at me and this onslaught does not cease until late at night when the last glowing screen fades to black. This world demands our attention with one hand and destroys it with the other. That such a noisy age can deliver an album as graceful and honest as Carrie & Lowell should reassure anyone losing faith these days. Let no one say philosophy is dead, for here is a 44-minute meditation on mortality, memory, and faith.
Each track in this collection of eleven songs begins with a fragile melody that gathers steam until it becomes nothing less than a modern hymn. Sufjan recounts the indignities of our world, of technological distraction and sad sex, of an age without either myth or miracle – and this time around, his voice carries the burden of wisdom. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait. If youth knew, if age could.”
The announcement from Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty – complete with a grainy 8mm trailer – comes as a relief, I’m sure, to the many fans reeled in by his work in the early 2000s. There was the understated Seven Swans in 2004, with allusions to Flannery O’Connor (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”) and various Biblical events (“Abraham,”“The Transfiguration”); the critically acclaimed Illinois, which – again, with a spiritual lens – dove into deep and sometimes dark ("John Wayne Gacy Jr.") stories from around the state; and a beautiful collection of Christmas songs with lesser-known hymns (“Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming”). Sufjan’s songs were subtle, hypnotic, and compellingly God-centered in a way most “Christian music” could only hope to be.
With the schizophrenic electro-pop of The Age of Adz and the overly experimental Silver and Gold, fans began scratching their heads and wondering just where Sufjan was taking them. Other Asthmatic Kitty artists like The Welcome Wagon and Lily and Madeleine would carry on the stripped-down, folky aesthetic of his earlier work; as for Sufjan, he swapped the t-shirt and hat for gigantic wings and neon. He seemed to want to shake off the responsibility of being a kind of go-to theological minstrel for introverts, and instead evolve out into a unique and bold artistic space.
But then, an appreciation for constancy – and a desire to not fix what’s not broken – is also a burden of wisdom. Carrie & Lowell looks and sounds like a return to the formula that works best for Sufjan Stevens, one that’s unpretentiously all his own. Song titles like “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” “Death With Dignity,” and “Drawn to the Blood,” signal the reemergence of that soft-spoken storyteller, who brings us into the heart of the personal and moral difficulties of modern society, and who sees, like Flannery did, a world “charged” with the life of God.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.