Often what makes a piece of art great is its ability to describe and distill the problems and realities of the world and deliver cogent answers. But great art — in my mind, the greatest — also courageously faces down questions for which the answers aren’t clear. The sinking of the Pequod at the end of Moby-Dick; Raskolnikov’s arrest at the end of Crime and Punishment — these aren’t answers to questions of existence but the final, furious statement of the questions themselves.

Sufjan StevensCarrie & Lowell is heavy with questions and hopelessly in search of answers. The ceaseless search for meaning is not only a characteristic of art, but of faith, too, and Stevens has always used the language of Christianity, sometimes directly, to talk about life and love. And so, he's well-equipped to approach death — and specifically, the death of his mother, Carrie, who left his family when he was a baby. Carrie, who struggled with substance abuse throughout her life, later hosted young Sufjan for a few summers in Oregon with her new husband, Lowell. Stevens revisits this brief period in his life on Carrie & Lowell, setting out to make sense of Carrie’s death through this collection of songs, as rooted in Christian meaning as they are in reminiscence.

The songs are coded with recurring images — different species of birds are mentioned in passing throughout the album, as saviors or stand-ins for young Sufjan, before they glide out of view — biblical passages, buried memories, and, at his breaking point, plainspoken utterances of confusion and longing. Stevens has spoken about his lapse into drugs and "f---ing around" in the wake of his mother's death, in an attempt to connect more deeply with her. "Do I care if I survive this,” Stevens sings on "The Only Thing," a contemplation of suicide that, like most songs on the record, swings gently between brightness and crushing melancholy. "Bury the dead where they’re found / In a veil of great surprises / I wonder did you love me at all?"

The work itself took a toll on Stevens. "I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery,” he told The Guardian about the making of the LP. "It was a year of real darkness. In the past my work had a real reciprocity of resources – I would put something in and get something from it. But not this time.” Beside the rest of Stevens' output, Carrie & Lowell stands out for its sheer minimalism. Its closest neighbor is Seven Swans, a suite about love and faith, but even that record allows for back-up singers, splintering electric guitar and a clamor of clarinets.

Carrie & Lowell is all circular, fingerpicked chord progressions and dull grey atmospheres. The canticle guitar on "Should Have Known Better" conjures the solemn, reflective mood typical of the album, like an empty sanctuary; a soft tape hiss, like cold rain, and a piano line stabilize "Fourth of July." These somber passages recall songs like "Redford" and "Vito's Ordination Song" from Michigan, Stevens' first major effort. But elsewhere, as the record continues to explore its themes of forsakenness and loss, we find ourselves longing for some of Stevens' more baroque tendencies -- there may not be room for the ecstasy of "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!," but the layered, funeral banjo on "Casimir Pulaski Day" is missed, as are others of Stevens' weird, sublime compositional excesses.

For awhile it was rumored this record would be the third installment in Stevens' promised series on every state in the U.S.; an ode to Oregon following his earlier Michigan and Illinois, in which Stevens' primary conceit is his own cleverness, each song nominally about a geographic place that's actually a love song or a confessional, adding a kind of kitschy counterpoint to his emotional forthrightness. Carrie & Lowell does speak of the swimming pools of Eugene and the Sea Lion Caves and the covered bridges of Cottage Grove. The stakes here are higher, though -- to yield something that's not merely an artifice but an actual, searching work of art.

And in that, it largely succeeds, as Stevens ponders his own behavior in the wake of loss, and, like a biblical hero, throws his hands up in despair and disbelief. But it feels like the seriousness of the task cost us the pleasure of hearing Stevens apply his best, most courageous musical tendencies.

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