Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell, is his best. This is a big claim, considering his career: 2003’s Michigan, 2004’s stripped-down Seven Swans, 2005’s Illinois, and 2010’s knotty electro-acoustic collection The Age of Adz. He’s also had residencies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, collaborated with rappers and the National, donned wings and paint-splattered dayglo costumes, and released Christmas albums. But none of those side projects were ultimately ever as interesting, or effective, as when Sufjan was just Sufjan, a guy with a guitar or piano, well-detailed lyrics, and a gorgeous whisper that could reach into a heartbreaking falsetto.
On the beautiful “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” Stevens frequently ends lines by holding them too long, letting the loss of breath seep into the expressions, the quiver and shake of exhaustion ever apparent, like his very soul in departing with the conclusion of lines. It’s a fitting thought for an album that often feels the same way, as if every ounce of emotional honesty Stevens possesses is laid on the table. It’s the corollary to an earlier line, where Stevens asks “What’s the point of singing songs, if they’ll never even hear you?” Carrie & Lowell is a demonstration of why Stevens sings songs, of why we listen to songs: to feel less alone, to make sense of the things that are hardest to make sense of. Hopefully it proves as rewarding to the singer as it is for his audience.