Eras of An Artist: Sufjan Stevens

The music misfit releases new album “Carrie & Lowell”

Flickr.com | Gideon Tsang

Flickr.com | Gideon Tsang

Sufjan Stevens has toured as a Christmas unicorn, a cheerleader, a Native American covered in neon post-its, and most notoriously, as a man with remarkable wingspan surrounded by a winged orchestra he named the “Butterfly Kite Brigade.” At 39, the singer-songwriter with a penchant for tossing tinsel over his sensitive folk songs released his 12th album “Carrie & Lowell,” in reaction to the death of his mother Carrie and in reflection on his childhood and his stepfather Lowell.

Given Stevens’ history of sleeplessly elaborate concept albums and composing on up to 18 different instruments, “Carrie & Lowell” is surprisingly simple. The album is graceful and human, beautiful like an old black and white photograph, but it’s not the radically rich art usually characteristic of Stevens.

The album is graceful and human, beautiful like an old black and white photograph, but it’s not the radically rich art usually characteristic of Stevens.

Although he was only seriously trained on oboe and claims he had “serious intonation problems” until he was 20, Stevens’ albums unveil a man who knows what he’s doing, especially considering his instrumental inventory: vocals, piano, guitar, banjo, vibraphone, bass, saxophone, English horn, accordion, glockenspiel, theremin, recorder, and various percussion. Back in 2000, with the release of his debut album “A Sun Came,” Stevens managed to play each of these instruments as well as meddle with digital samples of an unknown high-pitched voice sharing strange thoughts.

The next year, he released his first concept album “Year of the Rabbit,” based on the animals of the Chinese zodiac, which was followed by “Michigan,” his first attempt at his infamous 50 States Project, a (now abandoned) project to create an album for every state in the country. However, his second contribution, “Illinois,” was the album that debuted the spotlight on Stevens, paved by the success of the ballad Chicago” which was also featured on the indie flick “Little Miss Sunshine” soundtrack.

To further illustrate the prolific list of places Stevens has taken his music, his banjo-dominated album “Seven Swans” is unforgettable with its honest approach to religious themes and biblical characters. His classical orchestral soundtrack that explores the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (“The BQE”) is also memorable. He composed, conducted, and mixed this himself.

It’s the collection of whispered melodies you want in your ears during an afternoon nap with the sun on your sheets.

Ignoring the musical history of Stevens, “Carrie & Lowell” is without a doubt stunning. It’s the collection of whispered melodies you want in your ears during an afternoon nap with the sun on your sheets. Yet the album seems ordinary standing beside the musical oddities of “The BQE” soundtrack and the electronica of “The Age of Adz.” But perhaps “Carrie & Lowell” is an indirect defense of the strength of Sufjan Stevens without the need for ornaments or costuming.

With a track record of eccentric live performances, I am curious to see if Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell” tour will be a reflection of his current tranquil musical mood; perhaps his next tour character will simply be “a thoughtful man.”