Music artist Sufjan Stevens has released his newest album entitled "Carrie & Lowell." Although it focuses on the life of his mother, Carrie, the album also challenges the negative public perception on Christian music.
According to Ryan E.C. Hamm of the Washington Post, the album looks at how people of faith deal with questions in regards to the universal themes of death and the afterlife. Stevens attempts to answer them through the perspective of his Christian faith.
"Jesus, I need you, be near, come shield me," Stevens cries on "John My Beloved." "Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb/Signs and wonders: sea lion caves in the dark/ Blind faith, God's grace, nothing else left to impart," he sings on "The Only Thing."
According to Hamm, Steven's relationship with his mother had been difficult, given that she battled both alcoholism and mental illness. Based on that background, Stevens attempted to bring up questions in his latest album that many people face, such as where God is in the hard times and how to grieve for loved ones that were distant and cold in life.
"Stevens's plaintive cries to God in both challenges and pleas echo religious tradition as far back as the Psalmists," Hamm wrote. "These aren't the whimsical comparisons of Stevens earlier work, but they feel painful and real."
Hamm called him the poster child for the "Christian artist who doesn't make Christian music." He reported that Stevens's latest album, which hits the shops on Tuesday, has songs about sorrow, devastating emotion, family, place and God. His music explored both faith and despair.
"In the opening song, 'Death with Dignity,' Stevens sings, 'I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/I long to be near you,'" Hamm wrote. "Whether he's describing abusing drugs and wrestling with mental illness on 'No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,' thoughts of suicide on the haunting 'The Only Thing' or asking 'What's the point of singing songs, if they'll never even hear you?' on 'Eugene,' the album is clearly the work of someone who's grieving.
Lowell Brams, 63, recalled how Stevens's mother lived to Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork. He was married to Carrie for five years back in the 1980s; he's also now the director of Stevens's label, Asthmatic Kitty.
"A lot of the best times we had while we were married were when the kids were with us," Brams said. "The kids were like little puppies around her, they just loved her."
Stevens described the rawness present in his latest album with Dombal, leaving nothing unturned.
"With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe," Stevens said. "It's something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother's death-to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It's not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life."
Stevens told Dombal that he "always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie," given that he was only able to spend a few moments of time with her.
"She really suffered, for whatever reason," Stevens said, highlighting his mother's various mental illnesses. "But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, [and] frantic."
Stevens noted that his mother passed away from stomach cancer. Although he managed to see Carrie before she died, he was devastated by her passing.
"I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable," Stevens said. "There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement."
The music artist told Dombal that he still unconditionally loved his mother. He urged everyone to make amends with their loved ones while they still can.
"Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who've hurt you," Stevens said. "It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn't capable of."
Despite that hardship in his life, Stevens stated that he was still a Christian, noting that he found "incredible freedom in my faith," adding that "my relationship with God is fundamental."
"Yes, the kingdom of Christianity and the Church [have] been one of the most destructive forces in history, and there are levels of bastardization of religious beliefs," Stevens said. "But the unique thing about Christianity is that it is so amorphous and not reductive to culture or place or anything. It's extremely malleable."
Stevens worried that his latest music may come off as "indulgent" in regards to his misery. However, he hoped to "honor the experience" while being a responsible music artist at the same time.
"At their best, they should act as a testament to an experience that's universal: Everyone suffers; life is pain; and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence, so deal with it," Stevens said. "I really think you can manage pain and suffering by living in fullness and being true to yourself and all those seemingly vapid platitudes."