With hindsight, Arcade Fire having long-ago begetten a legion of po-faced men in pork-pie hats, the blockbuster victories of mid-00s indie-rock seem unfortunate. For grown 90s teens, the idea of once-modest college rock winning Grammys and topping shrunken Billboard sales charts was briefly validating. But any series of events that leads to songs by The Lumineers or Edward Sharpe being played at the gym requires a touch of regretful reflection. Of peak indie’s best-known artists, Sufjan Stevens, especially lost something in scaling up. His claim to be working on 50 separate albums tailored to the details of each of our united states was a goof taken too seriously by the press, but also a definitive example of personal music strangled by sort of arbitrary ambition. Though the songs from that period were often beautiful, there’s something off-putting in revisiting them now, a certain unintended smugness in the superhuman size of the task Stevens took on. His strengths as a songwriter are intimacy and empathy. Throwing himself into speculative historical fiction undercut them, suggesting that a stroll through a municipal record or Wikipedia page could provide all the inspiration he’d ever need. Leading orchestras in neon wings and crowding the stage with players, his delicacy was trampled underfoot.
Carrie & Lowell, his seventh record, is a necessary correction and a practical reintroduction. Its songs are centered around the semi-recent death of Stevens’s oft-absent mother. Though references to these events can be picked out of his “states” records, this one removes the need for speculation. He names this record for his mom and step-dad, and uses their pictures as its album cover. The lyrical references to death and dying are near-constant, to the point that they threaten to overwhelm with morbidity. But it’s not some fashionably goth record, trading in skulls to gain a shade of dark glamor; the simple acknowledgement of eventual death and the grief it leaves behind is used primarily to establish human unity. Limiting the comparison to alt-folk music, Stevens whispering “we’re all gonna die” is somehow a million times warmer than Bonnie “Prince” Billy croaking the almost identical sentiment: “Death to everyone, is gonna come.” It’s not spooky, but it is spooked.
On an album haunted with specific references to the Oregon-spent summers of Stevens’ youth, a couple acts from overlapping eras of Oregon’s recent rock history are weirdly illustrative. His states songs sometimes flirted with the worst instincts of Colin Meloy’s Decemberists—over orchestrated, too dependent on whimsical concepts, and an exhausting abundance of narrative detail. Carrie & Lowell, with its spare sound and its heart so badly broken, goes back (and trades up) to Elliott Smith. Its instrumental palette is limited to softly insistent strumming, some gentle keys, and Stevens himself. Instead of building to busy chamber pop catharses, those simple elements repeatedly drop away, leaving ambient pools of quiet contemplation. There were collaborators involved in making the record, but they are nearly invisible in effect. Sufjan’s still a big deal, selling out over 3500 seats at the newly renovated King’s Theater in Flatbush for an upcoming show. But entrenched at that rare position, modesty suits him best.