Can we avoid turning the Brooklyn-based artist and Christian into a poster boy?
Joel Heng Hartse / APRIL 1, 2015
Sufjan Stevens released his studio album Carrie and Lowell this week. It’s a record inspired primarily by the death of his estranged mother several years ago. As such, it’s raw, beautiful, and delicate. This is Stevens’s fifth proper album, but the prolific Brooklyn-based artist has been making folk, rock, electronic, and neoclassical music for 15 years, music that’s always informed by his Christian faith, even if not always explicitly so.
Carrie and Lowell is Stevens's most personal and intimate album yet, providing a window into his grief; into his love for and abandonment by his mother; and into his journey through all kinds of unhealthy coping mechanisms in the wake of loss. There are hints at substances, sex, and suicidal thoughts throughout the album, but they are treated with a light melancholy, evoking the early records of Elliott Smith and the more tender ballads of Simon and Garfunkel.
Carrie and Lowell marks two new directions for Stevens. First, every song here is an exercise in restraint and economy. The exceptions are the ambient instrumental outros on a handful of tracks. Even these feel necessary given the ethereal, somber mood of the record. Second, Stevens has abandoned the high-concept artifice of his other work and its epic themes: American history, the Chinese zodiac, the outsider artist and self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, to name a few. Carrie and Lowell does have a concept, but it is one taken directly from the singer’s experience. As Stevens told Pitchfork this winter, “This is not my art project; this is my life.”
It is difficult to identify a “standout” track on this album. All are short, gentle, and sparse. The first, “Death With Dignity,” and the last, “Blue Bucket of Gold,” are among the most melodically arresting. But most of the songs paint similar landscapes: memories of Carrie mix with feelings of regret and confusion (“I should’ve wrote a letter / explaining what I feel,” from “Should’ve Known Better”) and questions about the meaning of suffering (“My prayer has always been love / what did I do to deserve this?” Stevens pleads on “Drawn to the Blood).
There aren’t “answers” provided here, though at times the lyrics make clear the source of Stevens’s will to carry on: the beauty of his niece, friendship and romantic love, and his faith in Christ.
Art as Gift
Aside from Carrie and Lowell’s artistic merits, its uncomfortably naked premise offers a chance to reflect on evangelicals’ embrace of Stevens and his music. If it is increasingly clear that Stevens is not, in fact, the poster boy for hipster Christianity we might have once taken him for, can Christians continue to receive his music as a gift instead of as a “statement” about the integration of art and faith?
Christians first began paying attention to Stevens after the release of his 2004 album, Seven Swans. While many were aware that his previous album, Michigan, touched on spiritual themes (for example, “Vito’s Ordination Song,” written for his Presbyterian pastor friend Vito Aiuto, also one-half of The Welcome Wagon), Seven Swans was both biblical and devotional, with songs about Abraham and Isaac and the Transfiguration as well as more worshipful tracks such as “To Be Alone with You.” The album cemented Stevens’s place as a respected indie-folk singer-songwriter and a serious Christian voice within mainstream music. Indie-rock tastemakers loved Seven Swans, and “we” had a guy on the inside, it seemed.
But it doesn’t quite honor Stevens’s own story for evangelical Christians to label him as “one of us.” His music has not emerged from evangelical culture. Stevens didn’t record for a label that markets to evangelicals, nor did he tour in churches or Christian-owned coffee-shops. He did, for a time, attend Hope College, a Michigan school affiliated with the Reformed Church in America denomination. And has performed many times at another Michigan Christian university, Calvin College. But I’m hard-pressed to think of other formal involvement he’s had with evangelical institutions. To be sure, Stevens has said he attends an Anglo-Catholic parish, and his sense of art-making and creativity are inextricably bound up with his faith, but not in the way that many evangelicals have traditionally bound up the two.
In a blog post presumably written while recording Carrie and Lowell, Stevens heartily recommends the 1983 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. In it, essayist and cultural critic Lewis Hyde defends the value of making art simply as a gift to the public, an act that’s increasingly radical in a culture governed by money and trade. In his post, Stevens likened art-making to the act of Communion, wherein we receive the body of Christ as absolute gift. He wrote:
To objectify art is to measure its commercial value and squander its transcendental powers of benevolence. Reciprocity demeans art; or, rather, it functions to incarcerate its powers, to judge it for its charity. Like putting Mother Teresa on trial, or in prison, for the crime of compassion. On the contrary, perfect art, as a perfect gift (without ulterior motive, without gain, without compensation) courageously gives itself over to the world asking nothing in return.
Do I engage with my work as a father cultivates his child, with loving-kindness, with fierce enrichment, with awe and wonder, with unconditional love, with absolute sacrifice? I make this my impossible objective.
Stevens’s vision of music-making here may illustrate why he’s sidestepped the world of Christian music altogether. Though it has changed over the years, Christian pop music has usually had a goal: to help evangelize or to aid worship or to otherwise edify believers. There is usually a statement to be made, a position to be taken. Stevens, on the other hand, seems to have no interest in doing anything but following his artistic whims, creating beauty for its own sake.
These whims sometimes lead to uncomfortable places—places that listeners, Christians and otherwise, are not always comfortable going: symphonic pieces, 25-minute hip-hop dance songs, lyrics that depict ambiguous desire and, now, deeply personal grief.
Carrie and Lowell is an achievement—many early reviews have called it Stevens's best album—in part because it doesn’t feel like a statement of anything other than one person’s life experience, artfully rendered. And here is where Stevens’s longtime Christian fans are most challenged, in the best way: Will we objectify Stevens and his music by demanding that he stand in for a Christian aesthetic? Will we continue to use him as proof that Christians can crack the code of culture and use its tools? Or will we simply receive Stevens’s vulnerable songwriting for the gift that it is?
In another blog post from the same period as the one quoted above, Stevens wrote a short, impassioned post advocating “all manners of love at any cost. Any other option defiles the insurmountable reverence due all creation, immeasurable in bounty and beauty, incomparable in awe. The world is abundant, against all odds. My prayer has always been love.”
Carrie and Lowell is acknowledged as an album made in response to tragedy and grief. But it is one that responds to this bounty, beauty, and awe of creation, the extravagant gift of all that is. And it responds not with platitudes or arguments or artifice, but with the shimmering, honest offering of itself.
Joel Heng Hartse has written about music and faith for CT, Christ & Pop Culture, Geez, and many other publications. He is the author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll (Cascade).