Asthmatic Kitty Records recently gave us an initial glimpse of Sufjan Stevens’ seventh studio album, Carrie and Lowell, by releasing YouTube videos for his new tracks “Should Have Known Better” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.” The former is a montage of extended still camera shots that depict a rocky beach shore, a long bridge with minimal traffic, a pier, and a car driving through a prairie; the latter spends its entire 2:39 runtime fixated on a heavy tide rolling in under a lush mountain. The minimalist, steady approach in both videos speaks perfectly to one of Stevens’ greatest artistic strengths: Crafting deceptively simple music and emphasizing repetition in a way that is anything but tedious.
That was the case with vintage Stevens hits like “Chicago” and “Casimir Pulaski Day,” where he forgoes choruses and bridges in favour of homostrophic brilliance, and it still stands on Carrie and Lowell. It’s his most stripped-down album in years, and tracks like “Death With Dignity” and “Eugene” consist almost entirely of Stevens singing in a hushed voice over a soft, continuous chord progression. When he adds new layers of instrumentation, they’re precisely measured and don’t detract from the hymn-like quality of his music.
Continuity is the norm, but on the rare occasions where Stevens does shake things up, it’s to the album’s benefit. Carrie and Lowell is largely about the complicated relationship Stevens had with his now deceased mother (Carrie), and—to a lesser extent—his stepfather (Lowell), and he directly addresses these themes on “Carrie and Lowell” and “Should Have Known Better.” Both tracks start of with downcast melodies that eventually give way to beautiful, uplifting finales, which we can only hope is an indication of healing on their songwriter’s part.
Depending on how you feel about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Carrie and Lowell is the frontrunner for best album of 2015. Regardless, Sufjan Stevens is back, and we’re lucky to have him.