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Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

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To listen to Sufjan Stevens is to hear paradox. He’s inarguably one of music’s most gifted storytellers, but the connection between the artist and his stories has often been obfuscated. Take his landmark album, Illinois, a sprawling, stunning odyssey through the history, fables, and culture of the Land of Lincoln: he emotes so convincingly of things that clearly never happened to him (I’m fairly certain he was not one of Gacy’s victims, for example) that it becomes difficult to determine which stories are actually personal (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ comes to mind).

Imagine my surprise at the ineffable intimacy of his March release, Carrie & Lowell. This is a deeply personal album, the kind that gets written not because it’s time to release new music, but because an artist needs to cope the only way he knows how (Hospice and For Emma are other good examples of this). In other words, this album was not made for us, the listeners. Sufjan made it for himself, and for his mother, the eponymous Carrie.

Carrie died a few years ago, and while it goes without saying that losing a parent is a traumatic event in anyone’s life, her passing is further complicated by the nature of her life, and of her tenuous relationship with her family — for Sufjan, she’s defined far more by her cold absence than by the warming presence we ideally associate with our mothers.

To hear this on record is softly, sweetly devastating. Musically, Carrie & Lowell is almost regressive for Sufjan: he eschews both the orchestral flair of Illinois and the electronic maximalism of Age of Adz for simple acoustic structure. His flair for arrangement is still present — songs swell and sigh with emotions of hope and futility, strings and piano add texture and emphasis, and white noise haunts the album between many of the tracks.

But his greatest tools are his oldest: his voice, guitar, and lyrics. His hushed, pure vocals haven’t  changed much; they’re still used to great effect as he sings some of his most moving melodies. And there’s a slight but unmistakable quiver in his timbre that lends palpable emotion to a singer that has occasionally sounded detached on past records. His harmonies, too, are equal parts beautiful and bereaving.

His guitar playing will please any fan of Elliott Smith (an early and significant influence for Sufjan) — his fingerpicking is quick and clean, lending an almost ironic technical precision to an album that is frequently about falling apart. But the musicianship is always secondary, lending harmony and rhythm (speaking of rhythm, no drums to be found) to accompany his gorgeous melodies and lyrics.

The honesty and purpose in those lyrics are what make Carrie & Lowell such a singular listening experience. You will never hear an album like this from another artist — it’s as unique as the relationship between Sufjan and Carrie. Sufjan has always had a knack for combining the poetic with the matter-of-fact — that skill is at its best here: “There’s blood on that blade/ Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” His voice reaches for a note just out of reach at the end of that phrase, his futile grasps for solace reflected in the music.

There are very few answers for either Sufjan or the listener on Carrie & Lowell. Even when Sufjan writes from the perspective of his elusive mother, it’s rarely comforting: “Did you get enough love, my little dove? Why do you cry?/ And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best.” Her imagined words ring hollow, as empty to the listener as they must be to a man who was deprived of the motherly love every child so desperately desires. It’s not without some respite, at least. Sufjan still finds familial comfort, whether from the birth of his niece, and from the steady presence of his stepfather (the ‘Lowell’ of the title).

Still, it can’t be denied that this album is a sullen journey. What makes it worth taking is the sheer humanity in its words and music. There are moments on this record where I desperately wish I could offer comfort to Sufjan — not as a listener, but as a fellow human being with a mother I can’t imagine losing. It’s very difficult on an emotional level to be transported into Sufjan’s mind, to come to know some portion of his understandable yet immeasurable pain, and to agree that there’s absolutely nothing he can do to fill the void his mother’s love should occupy. As Sufjan himself puts it, “I forgive you mother, and I hear you/ And I long to be near you/ But every road leads to an end.”

Reviewing this album is a strange process, a bit like evaluating a diary. I can’t objectively assess whether or not Sufjan worked through whatever he needed to in creating Carrie & Lowell; truthfully it sounds like he probably doesn’t, which is perfectly ok. And it’s hard to listen to someone bear his soul across 43 minutes, sharing his most personal secrets and insecurities, and search for flaws or standouts (note that I didn’t highlight any tracks — there isn’t much point to picking them out when they best exist as a whole). In many ways, the personal nature and function of Carrie & Lowell transcend critical opinion.

But there’s still a listening experience underneath the ghosts and demons of this record. And it’s one of the most intimate and affecting you’ll find in music.

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Wowee Zowee turns 20

For the past five or six years, Pavement has been a perennial favorite despite their creative peak occurring well before I had even entered elementary school. I was turned on to them, of all sources, by an iTunes genius recommendation in my senior year of high school, discovering Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and falling in love instantly. I was transfixed by Stephen Malkmus’ listless delivery, his pop-writing sensibilities and fuzzy, off-the-cuff arrangements – it was the  sound I’d been trying to find for years. My admiration was cemented when I saw them on their reunion tour at Merriweather Post Pavilion – I am fated to be a Pavement lifer.

I read Bryan Charles’ 33 1/3 series entry for Wowee Zowee this past summer working in Baltimore. It’s a real page-turner, a forceful mix of memoir, criticism and indie rock archival work. I read the book in two or three days and remember finishing it in the pouring rain on the Charm City Circulator, wheeling past the cathedral in Mount Vernon. As I got home, I put on my headphones and listened to “Grounded,” watching lighting over East Baltimore, the penitentiary and the winking Mr. Boh in Camden from my bed.

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Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

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Last year, Earl Sweatshirt cancelled a slew of tour dates citing exhaustion, anxiety and unhealthy weight loss as the principal causes. Many – myself included – wondered what could be happening in his private life that could warrant such distress in an artist so talented and with such a ravenous fan-base. Those questions, for better or worse, are answered on his newest album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. It’s the Odd Future standout’s most challenging work yet – a knotted, dark, 30-minute tantrum, brief and confounding enough to warrant dozens of listens.

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Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

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The first time I saw Kendrick Lamar was in 2010 at Bonnaroo, promoting his still-excellent mixtape Section.80. By then, he’d already outgrown his midday stage and much of the material off his first mixtape, Overly Dedicated (“Pussy and Patron makes you feel alright” sounded laughable leaving his mouth even then). He slayed, leaving me mouth-agape. My story is hardly unique. It doesn’t matter when you discovered Kendrick – as it stands on To Pimp A Butterfly, he resembles nothing of the young man you once had him pegged for.

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Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

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Belle and Sebastian has always existed in their own world. In their little buttoned-up realm, the Scottish band has operated as though pop music stopped progressing at the end of the 60s (or 50s, given some of their catalogue), that everyone is well-versed in the classics and that guitars could only be played on the clean channel. And I don’t mean it as a knock – hell, they practically invented the indie aesthetic and have several new-age classics under their belt including Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap. Having said that, this disconnect with current pop trends has finally caught up with the band on their newest release, Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance. 

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Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

I understand why certain circles are as adamant as they are in their distaste for Panda Bear’s proverbial musical feng shui. His is an acquired taste, at times hard to palate, at times seemingly purposefully inaccessible, more or less impossible to listen to comprehendingly, without the auditory aid afforded by the kind of chemical compounds that make you see the world for what it really is, pulsating protoplasmic jelly and all. At times, though, his music is so surrealistically succulent, so consummate in its cosmic sonic strangeness, as to seem borderline divine, like extraterrestrial sixties pop from some far-out celestial realm that was picked up on a secret government frequency modulator.

There is simply no one else making music quite like Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox, the 36-year-old, Portugal-dwelling founding member of Bawlmer-born band Animal Collective) right now. His latest project, wherein he meets the grim reaper, is an affirmation of—if not also at times a kind of overindulgence in—this sentiment, not so much a departure-from or expansion-on as a grand return to what he alone does so well. It’s tighter than 2007’s Person Pitch, brighter (perhaps not thematically) than 2011’s Tomboy, and funkier than anything he’s ever done.

The album opens with “Sequential Circuits,” a veritable crystal-encrusted showcase of Panda’s signature swelling-and-ebbing, echoing brand of beautiful vocal hypnosis. The song is what some ass bag from Clash magazine calls “pure as a babbling brook,” and it is! But as soon as it comes it goes (as do most of the songs on PBVSGR, except for perhaps “Come To Your Senses,” the album’s 7-minute-long freak-out centerpiece), fading out into the first of the album’s two singles, which in my basically meaningless opinion are also the album’s two most brightly burning moments, “Mr Noah,” with a flourish of digital ribbets (imagine a world where the sacs in the throats of frogs could be digitized) and dog whimpering.

Lyrically, “Mr Noah” starts to get to the meat and taters of the album’s proverbial thematic nucleus. Hooks, which are at first-listen oftentimes indecipherable (mayhaps a cause for the distaste of those certain circles), like, “This dog got bit on a leg / He got a really big chip on a leg / Don’t want to get out of bed / Unless he feel like it justified,” seem to be a meta-allusion to a kind of creative plateauing for Panda Bear, as if he, now with a family in tow and the massive acclaim that follows an accreditation on a Daft Punk album, has little reason to continue to want to make music.

But it’s the first verse of the single that strikes me as being particularly poignant: “Here comes the loaf again / Drip a lot, drop a lot / Become an oaf again / Trip a lot, trip a lot / So wide to the other side / Shuts an eye / But he stays like a stump inside / Hey, hey, hey” (What bang-up pop song doesn’t have the hey-hey-hey’s, by the by, by the way?) The drug imagery herein (loaf = street name for reefer; drip = post-snort cocaine dribble; drop/trip = LSD ingestion) has a most negative connotation, making the meta-dog feel empty, hollow—soul rotting like a dang stump. No doubt there’s no faster sure-fire route to the grim reaper than substance abuse.

From there the album whirs into a 34-second-long transitional number called “Davey Jones’ Locker,” which, like another later similarly short track (18 seconds) called “Shadow of the Colossus,” is nothing more, nothing less, than a passing wave of aimless, albeit lulling, electronic noise. But whereas songs on previous Panda Bear albums would tend to waver and meander before finding their footing, most of the songs on PBVSGR rarely do, separating the album from the rest of Mr. Bear’s oeuvre with the immediate catchiness that comes with the execution of a sound verse-chorus structure, or whatever.

Three songs that define the album for me: “Boys Latin,” the bouncy, beat-heavy second of the two singles, which takes its name from a Bawlmer prep school, is as superb a display as any of Panda’s immaculate melodic style; “Tropic of Cancer,” containing samples from a ballet by name of The Nutcracker, is an ode to the disease that took his father’s life and is among the most heart-rendingly gorgeous pieces of reverie-producing psychedelic pop that Panda Bear has ever made; and “Lonely Wanderer,” containing semi-eerie piano samplings from Claude Debussy’s “Arabesque No.1 in E Major,” complete with lyrics like, “If you look back / Would you look back? / What have you done? / What did you do? / Was it worthwhile?” could very well be what would play during a near-death experience, as the entirety of one’s life flashes by eye-level. “Principe Real,” which is as club-friendly as Panda Bear’s ever risked getting, is also well worth a listen too—synthy as all hell, it’s the epitome of the brand of 90s hip-hop beat construction that seems to typify so much of the album, or something.

Whether or not Panda Bear maintains his moniker, I will continue to want to hear what he has to create. His latest is a sweet-and-savory psychedelic start to a promising new year in music. At times slightly aconceptual, at times pretty nearly breathtakingly ingenious, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is simply a must-hear for all those with an ear for the weird.

-Peter Hadjokas

 

 

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