It’s been four and a half years since Sufjan Stevens last released a studio album, and the folk singer’s latest offering is worth the wait. Carrie and Lowell, Stevens’ seventh album, named for his mother and step-father, is a return to more familiar sounds for Stevens.
Stevens’ 2010 album The Age of Adz was a radical departure from his previous works, blending electronic sounds with his more traditional instrumentation to create a booming and, at times, disquieting experience. While I thoroughly enjoyed the new direction, it seems that Stevens has decided to put that style on hold for Carrie and Lowell, instead favoring a more subtle acoustic approach to the music. The moniker of “folk music” certainly fits this album more than the last. Yet, Carrie and Lowell does not feel similar to Stevens’ 2005 smash hit Illinois, either, which prominently featured layered orchestration and a bombastic, energetic sound on many of its tracks. Carrie and Lowell feels most similar to his 2003 album Michigan to me. Stevens’ voice is central in most of the tracks, and the combination of it and his acoustic guitar provide a soothing atmosphere throughout the album.
Stevens’ talent for lyrics has not left him, and his curious talent for mixing his religious experiences into his songs without making “Christian music” still serves him well. Carrie and Lowell, as the name suggests, was prominently inspired by Stevens’ experiences with his family. His mother passed away in 2012, and this provides context for one of the album’s standout tracks, “The Fourth of July.” The theme of reminiscing on childhood, and about wondering if one has made the correct choices since then, is another important aspect of the album.
With eleven tracks, the longest of which just surpasses five minutes in length, Carrie and Lowell is a faster listen than other of his albums, but rewards repeated listens. Standout tracks include “Should Have Known Better,” “Fourth of July,” “The Only Thing,” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.” I can’t recommend cherry-picking songs, though; Carrie and Lowell is best experienced as a whole.