Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell Live finds solace in darkness and despair

Listening to Carrie & Lowell two years after its release, the emotional starkness of it still sends shudders. Written in the wake of his mother's death from cancer, Sufjan Stevens' seventh studio release "feels artless", as he himself has said in an interview.

"This is not my art project; this is my life," he adds.

That feeling is somewhat mitigated by this multi-media documentation of his gig at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center in South Carolina on Nov 9, 2015, which you can watch on Vimeo (vimeo.com/215185438).

Whereas on the studio recording, it comes across like he is channelling painful, private grief, in a live show the sharing feels, yes, communal, even uplifting. You are bathed, embraced and blessed.

Standing against snippets of his home videos gleaned through what looks like shards of church windows, his silhouette is alternately shrouded and delineated by light. It is solace coaxed out of darkness and despair.

The songs retain, more or less, the same intimacy, but it is the kind of intimacy now amplified in a cathedral, or a secluded cave.

  • ALTERNATIVE ROCK


  • CARRIE & LOWELL LIVE

    Sufjan Stevens

    Asthmatic Kitty

    4/5 stars

The familiar acoustic strums that preface Death With Dignity are welcome with a round of audience recognition. The words are whispered, but his voice cuts through to the soul. His band echoes the melody line, and you know you'll be fine.

The dirge Should Have Known Better - about how he initially failed to process his mother's passing - starts with sparse electric riffs, then blooms into a reassertion of familial ties. "My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination," he sings, buoyed on heaven-bound synths.

Occasionally, the need for a communal exorcism overrides the initial rawness. On record, All Of Me Wants All Of You is a harrowing three-minute confession but when performed live, it is transformed into a six-minute psychedelic resolution, guitars and drums having displaced loneliness for a spaced-out hedonism. What gives?

Perhaps the grief has become too much that he needs the emollient distraction music can provide.

Other times, the expansion is just.

Blue Bucket Of Gold, about the need for connection and presence in the way that his mum could not fulfil, is expanded from a five-minute lament into an 18-minute, breathtaking catharsis, as the music goes in search of otherworldly salvation.

Fourth Of July, pitched as a conversation between Stevens and his mum as she lay on her death bed in the hospital, ends with the mantra: "We're all gonna die."

The original lets that sentence hang, then quietly retreats. The live version takes off into an improbable celebration of mortality, as he chants it amid a cavalry of drums and back-up singers.

It is almost redemptive, this realisation that death unites all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2017, with the headline 'Solace of darkness and despair'. Print Edition | Subscribe