Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell, is a beautifully intimate, intensely personal collection of songs that explore his grief following the death of his mother in 2012. It strips away all the elements in the Michigan-born, Brooklyn-based songwriter’s musical arsenal that might be considered excessive.
But Stevens is a tinkerer at heart, so the terrific tour- opening show he played at the Academy of Music on Thursday - with a repeat performance scheduled for Friday night - was by no means the entirely pared-down meditation on faith and loss you might expect.
Not that the hour and a half performance wasn’t a serious - and for the most part, seriously mesmerizing - affair. It was, so much so that when Stevens, seated at the piano, wearing an upturned trucker's hat and arty American flag t-shirt, thanked his audience before a closing encore of “Chicago” from his 2005 concept album Illinois, he accompanied it with an apology. “It’s a real privilege to be here in this beautiful theater in this beautiful city,” the 39 year old auteur said with a smile. “Sorry it’s a bit of a downer.”
Stevens didn’t alter the emotional pitch of the songs on Carrie & Lowell, whose title characters are his mother, who suffered from depression and first left the family when the singer was an infant, and his stepfather, who now helps run Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty record label.
And ruminations such as “Death With Dignity,” the first song with words after the opening instrumental “Redford” (from 2003’s Michigan), were delivered in quietly luminous renditions with arrangements that didn’t stray from their recorded versions. But with the help of four backing musicians who switched off an array of instruments - Stevens himself played guitar, piano, banjo and electronic keyboard - other songs such “All Of Me Wants All Of You” and “The Only Thing” employed programmed beats and effects familiar from his 2010 album The Age Of Adz.
There were some first night sound glitches. But Stevens’ impulse to present his new songs in the overall context of his recorded work, orchestrations and all, rather than simply as a return to the folk-roots of early albums of like 2004’s Biblically-themed Seven Swans (from which he did two songs) was largely a success.
By delivering Carrie & Lowell songs such as “Blue Bucket Of Gold” (complete with a pair of spinning disco balls) and “Fourth Of July” (with its repeated carpe diem incantation “We’re all gonna die”) in slow-building ultimately cathartic arrangements, Steven provided a measure of much-needed spiritual release. And by contrast, that made the more purely acoustic treatments of quietly luminous songs like “Eugene” and “Should Have Known Better” all the more heartbreaking.