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Sufjan Stevens deals with his mother's death in one of his best albums yet

Sufjan Stevens's new album is his most personal yet
Sufjan Stevens's new album is his most personal yet
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Sufjan Stevens has built a career out of his feelings. On each of the indie-rock singer-songwriter's six studio albums, from the youthful angst of 2000's A Sun Came to the strange electronic dissection of 2010's The Age of Adz, he has never been afraid to admit he is sad or scared or sometimes both.

But what makes Stevens one of the most talented songwriters of the 21st century isn't just his emotional acuity, but also his aptitude for storytelling. He has a remarkable ability to use the song format to craft a narrative, to weave together stories of his own life with ancient mythology and religious references.

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On Carrie & Lowell — his seventh studio album, due out Tuesday, March 31 — the story he's telling comes from two years of intense pain and loss. Stevens' mother, Carrie, died in 2012, and this album is both a tribute to her and an honest exploration of what it means to be almost 40 and finding yourself buried in grief.

Carrie & Lowell is an attempt to learn to grieve

Stevens has always been a deeply empathetic songwriter. He made characters with epic flaws, such as the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., into human beings worthy of concern. His albums historically have focused on dejected men suffering through personal battles and trying to find themselves.

It's a plot that — though Stevens presents it with nuance and beauty on songs like Seven Swans' "To Be Alone With You" and "A Little Lost" — isn't completely relatable. Personal angst is fiery, but it's not universal. Grief is universal. And grieving is what this album is really about.

The opening song "Death With Dignity" is the end of the story of Stevens' pain. It's a song about forgiveness and accepting the death of his mother, placed at the beginning of an album that evaluates just how hard it is to reach that acceptance. "I forgive you mother / I can hear you / and I love to be near you / but every road leads to an end," Stevens sings.

With careful finger-plucking and breathy vocals, it's a song as delicate and fragile as Stevens' relationship with his mother seems to have been.

Stevens' mother, Carrie, died of stomach cancer in 2012. Stevens grew up with his father after Carrie left their family when he was just a year old. She spent her life battling depression and alcoholism. In a gut-flipping, heartbreakingly honest interview with Pitchfork, Stevens explained, "Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable."

As beautiful as moments on this album are, there's deep darkness in Carrie & Lowell. Stevens sings about contemplating suicide, cutting his arms, and finding himself so alone that he didn't care if he survived. "Should I tear my eyes out now," he sings, "everything I see turns to you somehow."

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Sufjan Stevens performs in concert in 2008. (Mike Flokis/Getty)

Because it is deeply personal, this album is his most relatable

Grief is a complicated emotion. It's fragile and all-encompassing and quiet. It approaches slowly and takes over a life piece by piece until every thought and feeling and action is weighted with the heaviness of something greater and unprocessed.

But sometimes it takes tragedy to remind us who we are. Carrie & Lowell is an expression of Stevens' grief, but it's also a realignment with what made him beloved and great to begin with.

Sufjan Stevens is an artist with three distinct sounds. There's the Sufjan Stevens who uses symphonic instruments and records Christmas albums; this is the Sufjan behind his breakout album, 2005's Illinois. There's the Sufjan Stevens who makes lo-fi folk music about feelings, as with 2004's Seven Swans. And then there's the Sufjan Stevens who made the mind-bending electronica masterpiece The Age of Adz.

Here, Stevens is at his most pared-down. The synthesized harmonics are gentle and subtle. There are no sweeping guitars and definitely no drums. It's one of the quietest albums Stevens has ever made, but it's also one of the hardest to listen to. The emotion is more subtle and all the more powerful for it. In the background, it sounds like a Stevens album, but when listened to carefully it's his most personal, honest album yet.

Stevens' relationship with his mother was complicated and difficult and, though relatable to many, certainly not universal. There are songs on this album that deal directly with that tangled relationship. On the first single "Should Have Known Better," for example, Stevens sings, "I never trust my feelings / I waited for the remedy / When I was three / three maybe four / she left us at that video store." It's a poignant retelling of being abandoned by the woman who was supposed to love him.

By taking examples from his own life, instead of the lives of mythologized men from history as he has on previous albums, Stevens is able to honestly evaluate what he feels, and those emotions are illuminating in the clarity they cast for anyone who has ever lost anyone, in any sense. Later in "Should Have Known Better," Stevens sings, "Nothing can be changed / the past is still the past / a bridge to nowhere." It's those transitions, from specific to general, that make this album so easily felt.

In the direct center of the album, on a track called "Fourth of July," Carrie & Lowell comes the closest to the building orchestral sounds of Stevens' earlier albums, before the sound abruptly drops off and listeners are left with only his voice gently reminding them over and over again that "We're all going to die / we're all going to die / we're all going to die."

Carrie & Lowell reminds us that emotional albums are at their best when they are gentle and pervasive and unavoidable, just like the grief we have all felt.

Carrie & Lowell will be released on March 31. It can be heard in full today on NPR First Listen.