What is that song you sing for the dead?

It’s a couple of years since the American artist Sufjan Stevens released his album Carrie and Lowell, a cycle of songs inspired by the death in 2012 of his mother Carrie. Carrie was an alcoholic and schizophrenic who left the family when he was young, only to be reunited later on when his stepfather, Lowell (with whom he now runs his own independent record label Asthmatic Kitty) encouraged her to contact him again.

The album gained universal plaudits when it came out: devastating, compelling, heartbreaking. In it, he tells extraordinarily poignant stories of seemingly random incidents: when his mother left him in a video store, when his swimming teacher who held him “like a father” couldn’t pronounce his name and so called him Subaru.

The most overwhelming song, in both its emotional intensity and its lyrical skill, is The 4th Of July, in which he sings of the night Carrie died in hospital. “It was night when you died, my firefly.” He captures with such dexterity the swings from introspective depth to stark banality which moments such as that bring: “I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right” he sings, and then a few seconds later, “The hospital asked, should the body be gassed, before I say goodbye, my star in the sky.” I watched him sing that song at the End of the Road Festival in 2015 and towards the close, 10,000 people quietly sang along with him as he repeated: “We’re all gonna die.”

Sufjan’s trademark vocal delivery – the multilayered whisper – delivers these lyrics with the same level of raw revelation as Dylan did on Blood on the Tracks in the ‘70s. When Dylan wailed on Idiot Wind, “I can’t even touch the books you read” he plumbed the same grief-ridden depths which Sufjan appears driven to on this album. There are similarities between the two, not only in their unassailable status as lyricists, but also in the restlessness which characterise their careers.

With this album, however, Sufjan comes close to both an artistic and existential despair which is as unsettling as it is compelling. As he says in one song:

“What’s the point of singing songs, if they’ll never even hear you?”

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