Rock Roundup

The Beautiful Agony of Sufjan Stevens

Singer songwriter’s latest album takes on his parents. He performs at Riverside Thursday.

By - Apr 20th, 2015 12:21 pm
Sufjan Stevens. Photo from Asthmatic Kitty Records.

Sufjan Stevens. Photo from Asthmatic Kitty Records.

Top Show: Sufjan Stevens at Riverside Theater, Thursday, April 23

“Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything,” Saul Bellow wrote in his 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift. Ten years after Bellow’s own death, Sufjan Stevens gropes his way toward an understanding of those words on Carrie & Lowell, his latest solo album.

Carrie is his mother, who left his father when the son was just a year old and who died of stomach cancer in 2012; Lowell is his stepfather, Lowell Brams, who helped Stevens found the Asthmatic Kitty label through which he has issued his records.

His relationships with them are obviously complicated and snarled up in tangled feelings. With a return to the indie-folk delicacy that he has periodically spurned in useful artistic quests, Stevens probes the snarls as though they are the threads that, when pulled, unravel the whole.

His grieves so beautifully and so achingly, in a melancholy manner not unlike but not too much like Elliott Smith, that, when I first heard Carrie & Lowell, I was inclined to dismiss a lot of the diversions between 2010’s The Age of Adz and now, and much of the rest of Stevens’ discography, as methods of avoiding this main subject.

However, my inclination was a stupid assumption that the most honest and painful art is the best. Albums like 2003’s Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State and 2006’s five-EP Songs For Christmas—the former an extended nod to his home state, the latter an alternately reverent and goofy holiday project—remain worthwhile.

(Also worthwhile are the follow-ups, 2005’s Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise and 2012’s Silver & Gold.)

With Carrie & Lowell, Stevens doesn’t deepen or improve his art so much as force himself to do more than look in the mirror. He looks at the dark backing for as long as he can stand it.


Tuesday, April 21: Todd Rundgren at Pabst Theater

As a producer, Todd Rundgren can claim a hand in works by the New York Dolls and XTC (two of my favorites from his list of credits); as a musician, he’s ranged from the sappiest Carole King-style pop to the artiest rock; as an explorer, he’s made inroads into fields like Internet music distribution and computer software.

As a live performer, Rundgren can be indifferent, disengaged, and silly bordering on contemptuous of his audience. The main hope that he will not be this time is that he’s just issued Global, a passionately Earth-conscious album spiced with moments of wry distance that John Cale might admire. Then again, this year he’s also touring with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, so caveat emptor and then some.


Wednesday, April 22: The Maine at Rave

Distinguishing second-tier pop-punky bands from each other can be as unrewarding a task as telling one second-tier bebop saxophonist from another. Still, if I have to get out the tweezers and loupe, I am going to report that I enjoy the Maine more than about a dozen others like it.

Because…well, because the Tempe, Arizona quintet’s latest album, this year’s American Candy, nudges its sound a little to the left rather than trying to switch direction entirely (cf. Good Charlotte’s clumsy course changes). Plus, there is a, by pop-punky standards anyway, subtle resemblance to Hold Steady, minus the constant low-culture references.


Friday, April 24: Hiss Golden Messenger at Club Garibaldi

Not every band marches across the artificial lines of genre boundaries with the determination and daring of the Beatles. Some, like Hiss Golden Messenger, saunter across those lines and, when told about them, shrug and keep sauntering with the contentment that comes from not caring about what doesn’t matter.

Based in North Carolina, a good locale for relaxation, HGM is at its base an Americana thing, led firmly by M.C. Taylor with the assistance of Scott Hirsch, then surrounded by other players if and as needed. The latest LP, last year’s Lateness of Dancers, is easygoing without being the slightest bit lazy.


Friday, April 24: Neutral Milk Hotel at Riverside Theater

If the Elephant 6 gathering of bands during the 1990s was a kind of indie-rock Beat Generation, then Neutral Milk Hotel was at once its Jack Kerouac and its lost poet, with bandleader Jeff Mangum creating some of E6’s most influential work and going into seclusion after being overwhelmed.

Since 2013, Mangum has been fronting a reunited Neutral Milk Hotel—reportedly with the same lineup that laid down the utterly magnificent In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the group’s last proper album, in 1998—yet with the current tour says goodbye to us for, as a website announcement blandly puts it, “the foreseeable future.” The lost poet retreats again.

0 thoughts on “Rock Roundup: The Beautiful Agony of Sufjan Stevens”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like Suftan Stevens has produced, in Carrie & Lowell, an album that has as much depth as the pain he probably felt in relation to his mother and his father, which is not easy to do! Thank you for this review!

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