Monday 18 December 2017

Sufjan Stevens' songs of loss and childhood

Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens
John Meagher

John Meagher

Blur got a lot of people very excited last week with the news they will soon release their first album in 12 years. And just a few days earlier, there was similar glee among discerning music fans when Sufjan Stevens announced he would be bringing out a new album.

One of the most eccentric and brilliant US songwriters of his generation, the Detroit native will release Carrie & Lowell on March 27. 'No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross' - a short and quietly devastating single built around a softly strummed acoustic guitar and the tenderest of vocals - offers a tantalising glimpse into what could be one of the key albums of 2015.

Named after his mother and stepfather, the album promises to weave aspects of Stevens' turbulent childhood into deeply personal songs. There will be plenty of material for him to draw on: Carrie Stevens died when he was a young boy after having suffered years of mental health problems while Lowell Brams was a co-founder of Stevens' label, Asthmatic Kitty, and collaborated with his stepson on the instrumental album Music For Insomnia. (Fans of The National might be interested to know that guitarist Bryce Dessner produced that little-heard album.)

While Carrie & Lowell will be Stevens' first solo album since the uneven The Age Of Adz in 2010, he hasn't been idle since. First, there was Planetarium - a song cycle devoted to the planets, which he made in collaboration with classical musician Nico Muhly and the aforementioned Dessner.

Then, there was a whopping five Christmas albums that he released online in one go - no contemporary musician is as creatively fired by that festive period as Sufjan Stevens is. At last count, he had released more than 100 seasonal tunes, although even the most ardent admirer might struggle to get through them all.

And, as if that wasn't enough, he indulged all his avant-garde tendencies by providing the moody soundtrack for a slow-motion documentary on the quintessentially American pursuit of rodeo.

But it's an album he brought out in 2005 that cemented his standing as a great contemporary songwriter and has ensured he is cut plenty of slack when it comes the projects that are decidedly naval-gazing. Illinois (or Come On, Feel The Illinoise as it's sometimes called), was a stunning collision of fact and fiction, past and present, personal and universal.

After releasing an album (Songs From Michigan, 2003) that was inspired by his home state, he turned to his attention to the more populous state that shares a border with Lake Michigan - and he let his imagination run riot.

Not only are the songs sonically adventurous with a cornucopia of instruments and voices, but they have an awful lot to say too. (At the time, he said the album was the second of something he called "The 50 States Project", but he later dismissed such an ambitious plan as a joke.

It takes guts to write a song about Illinois' most notorious serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, and not simply demonise him, but rather explore the similarities in his upbringing and that of one of his victims.

Elsewhere, the stunning 'Casimir Pulaski Day' takes a look at terminal illness, sexual awakenings and family strife and it packs a powerful emotional hit. Stevens' beloved banjo makes an appearance and it serves to add substantially to the overriding sense of pathos in the song.

Despite the plaintive, melancholy moments, the album has no shortage of exuberant songs, including the intoxicating 'Chicago'. And that, by the way, is Annie Clark - better known as St Vincent - that you can hear on background vocals.

Stevens played Dublin's Olympia shortly after Illinois was released and he delivered a remarkable show that was about as far as the 'one man and an acoustic guitar' performance can get. Gaily attired and with a score of musicians on stage with him - including Clark, who was in a transitional phase between membership of the Polyphonic Spree and her soon-to-be St Vincent incarnation - his songs connected with the audience in a way that was both rare and memorable.

With Carrie & Lowell, this most intriguing of songsmiths is set to open a new chapter.

Elsewhere...

Earlier this month, I wrote about Olafur Arnalds, the Icelandic musician behind the evocative Broadchurch score. Well, he and his eight-piece band certainly delivered the goods at Dun Laoghaire's Pavilion Theatre last week.

Not only did they perform the key compositions from the popular UK crime series but he also showcased material from his forthcoming album, The Chopin Project, which he has made in collaboration with German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott.

The night's magical final moment - with Arnalds playing a beat-up old piano beautifully and his band providing accompaniment off-stage - will live in the memory for a long time.

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