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How Sufjan Stevens wrestles with death and faith in his new album ‘Carrie and Lowell’

FILE: Sufjan Stevens(Photo by Mike Flokis/Getty Images)
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Artist Sufjan Stevens’s “Carrie & Lowell”is fast becoming one of the most acclaimed albums of 2015. The new album is about his mother, Carrie, but it’s also about how Stevens grappled with her death—and, as a microcosm, how people of faith deal with questions of death and afterlife.

The album is both universal and specific. Who hasn’t tried to make sense of life in the wake of a death? It also uncovers the artist’s attempts to find comfort in (and questioning) his specifically Christian faith after his mother’s death (the album is named after Carrie and Stevens’ stepfather, Lowell).

“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.”

Stevens’s plaintive cries to God in both challenges and pleas echo religious tradition as far back as the Psalmists. These aren’t the whimsical comparisons of Stevens earlier work, but they feel painful and real.

[After tweeting his mother’s death, NPR’s Scott Simon has written the book of her life]

By Stevens’s own account, his relationship with his mother was fraught. She was an alcoholic who battled mental illness much of her life, making any kind of traditional relationship with her difficult. So album listeners find Stevens asking the kinds of questions we rarely hear uttered: How do we grieve for loved ones, even when those loved ones weren’t very loving? And by the way: Where is God?

A prophet who happens to like puns

To understand Sufjan Stevens’s new album, it’s important to understand where he’s coming from, with previous albums that have also touched on his faith.

Stevens has long been a sort of poster child for the “Christian artist who doesn’t make Christian music” moniker. Though he’s long been uncomfortable with that kind of phrasing, it’s been unavoidable—his breakthrough third album, “Greetings from Michigan,” featured a song written for his friend Vito’s ordination from the perspective of God, saying, “I always knew you, in your mother’s arms I have called you son.”

His fourth full-length, “Seven Swans” was even more explicit about Stevens’s Christian faith—from “To Be Alone With You”’s tender thankfulness to Jesus (“You gave up a wife and a family, you gave your ghost, to be alone with me […] and went up on a tree”) to the terrifying and awe-filled apocalyptic visions of the Second Coming in “Seven Swans” (“And if you run, he will chase you—he is the Lord”), the album is a quiet rumination informed by Stevens’s faith.

Likewise, “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” Stevens’s second “state album” (and best pun) is filled with Christian imagery and sentiment. The singer on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” confesses that the notorious serial killer is a sinner “just like me,” and Jesus is compared to Superman (yes, sounds cheesy but it’s somehow is effective) on “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Heart.”

Stevens’s approach to the Christian faith has always mixed the mundane, day-to-day aspects of belief with the grandiose claims of Christianity. Tiny moments, like when his father wakes him up to tell him of his experience of God (“He Woke Me Up Again” from “Seven Swans”) mingle with the fantastic (as in the Second-Coming-by-way-of-a-UFO-sighting of Illinoise’s “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”).

He has a way of mingling together mythic stories, both Christian and otherwise. His approach to faith is probably best summed up in his two(!) multi-album box sets of Christmas albums, where songs about Santa sit alongside sacred hymns and quiet songs about the holiday.

Stevens’s songs also touch on family, place and the prickliness of human emotion. His 2010 album, “The Age of Adz,” used the outsider art of Royal Robertson as a muse to tell stories of falling into depression, falling in and out of love and friendship—along with a dash of Pentecostal admonition coupled with cosmic visions (“Get Real Get Right”).

For many evangelical listeners, who had long claimed Stevens as one of their own ever since he attended Christian school Hope College, were uncomfortable with some of the language and themes on “Age of Adz”(a repeated refrain of “I’m not f—ing around” on “I Want to Be Well” and some ambiguously gendered pronouns as objects of love and desire being the most obvious examples). It was a double-take of an album, divisive in its scope and theme.

It also meant: Where would Stevens go next? What did this newfound emotional directness mean for someone who had always sung about faith and myth?

A time to mourn

In many ways, Stevens’s latest album (out Tuesday) represents a culmination of every side he’s ever shown to his listeners. There are songs of sorrow, songs of devastating emotion, songs about family, songs about place and, yes, songs about God. It’s the Sufjan of many albums, using quietly beautiful music to explore 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.” 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.

And, of course, because it’s Stevens, it’s a Christian doing the grieving. Stevens has never shied away from doubting before (especially on songs like “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” and “Casimir Pulaski Day”) but the questions on “Carrie & Lowell” sting especially hard. “How? God of Elijah,” he asks on “Drawn to the Blood,” concluding with: “For my prayer has always been love. What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?” It’s a question likely familiar to listeners of faith—to steal the title of an old evangelical inspirational book, where is God when it hurts?

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Stevens said, “[This album was] 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.”

Those who share Stevens’s Christian faith may similarly find his reliance and questioning of faith meaningful. It places him in a long line of believers trying to make sense of their faith—and finding comfort in it—in the face of death.

There are no easy answers to be found on “Carrie & Lowell,” but that’s likely intentional. There aren’t any easy answers when confronting death—there’s just grief, and perhaps a little faith.

Ryan E.C. Hamm is a writer living in Cleveland, which is a much better place than you have been led to believe. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanECHamm or read more of his writing at