Although I am, and always have been, an avid music listener (dare I say, music junkie), I’m not really the type to set aside the hour or so required to exclusively listen to an album. That’s not to say that I never listen to full albums—quite the contrary—I’m just generally doing other things whilst bobbing my head along. Taking this into account, Sufjan Stevens makes me stop in my tracks. He makes me abandon all those distractions and solely, well, listen. His music very simply merits this kind of attention and focus. In any case, thanks to the team at NPR Music and their First Listen series, all of us common people were granted the opportunity to hear Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell, one week earlier than its release on March 30.
For anyone who is familiar with his music, this new album will come as somewhat of a surprise. Carrie & Lowell finds Stevens shedding his typical lush orchestrations for a sparse, trimmed down sound. Case in point: for the majority of one song, “The Only Thing,” you hear only Sufjan’s singing accompanied by a single, repeated note on what sounds like a muted piano. Instead of horn and string sections, we hear the sounds of everyday life: environmental noise like subway trains passing in the distance, or Stevens’ quiet count-offs. In that same vein, the lyrics on this album are the most exposed and personal that I’ve ever encountered in any of his work up to this point. He’s ditched the elaborate metaphors found on Illinois and Age of Adz, for something that’s so heartbreakingly sincere and intimate, it reduced me to tears (see: “Eugene”). Even if the grandeur of his previous work is seemingly absent on this album, Carrie & Lowell soars in a wholly different way, allowing the very raw beauty of human sadness and emotion to permeate.
You can hear the whole album here on the NPR Music website until its release on March 30. And don’t forget to put away your work, find a comfy nook, and just listen.