“Death With Dignity” opens Carrie & Lowell as a touching elegy to Sufjan Stevens’ mother, yet it also could describe his relationship to his own music. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings, and “I’ve got nothing to prove” over a familiar bed of bluegrass-inspired folk. Stevens was like the A-plus student of indie pop, turning out album after album of perfectly manicured orchestral folk-pop, but I felt like he lost his way a bit with The BQE, an album and project that felt unwieldy, as well the hectic electro-folk of The Age of Adz. Carrie & Lowell, by comparison, is one of his most stripped-down albums to date. That’s not to say it doesn’t have his trademark fixation on detail— songs shift halfway through, like “Should Have Known Better’s” turn into stuttering, laptoppy acoustics and choral touches, or “Drawn to the Blood’s” extended string finale; “you checked your text while I masturbated,” he sings casually, telling a girl she looks like Poseidon in the sexually turbulent “All of Me Wants All of You.” Lyrically and musically, Stevens remains a curious tinkerer, but Carrie & Lowell never feels busy in the slightest. It’s an intensely focused work, one that places Stevens’ voice and songcraft over bells and whistles. Whereas locations and history seemed to hold Stevens’ interest in the past, here he’s death-obsessed (and still spiritual as ever). “Fourth of July” feels romantically morbid and carries the happy refrain “we’re all gonna die,” and on “The Only Thing,” he sounds stricken with grief to the point of barely being able to keep going on. Stevens’ way with language, drawing on mythology and Christian imagery, and ascendant voice keeps the songs from wallowing too deeply, even as they describe an immense sense of loss, allowing those moments when he does break—“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’” “Fuck me, I’m falling apart”—to land all the more effectively. Without the filter of a state’s history or the heavy religiosity of Seven Swans, Carrie & Lowell finds Stevens turning his studious eye inward to fully explore his own grief, and the results are never short of breathtaking.
Damaged Bug – “The Mirror”
John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees has another solo album due as Damaged Bug, his synthy alter ego. “The Mirror” creeps and buzzes around on an analog groove, getting under your skin like a mosquito without you realizing it. Cold Hot Plumbs is due June 1 on his label, Castle Face (following last year’s Hubba Bubba). Hear it over at Pitchfork. And check out that sick album art!
tUnE-yArDs – “Wait for a Minute” video
The Bay Area’s Merrill Garbus is back with a new video from last year’s great Nikki Nack album. Directed by SNEAL, there’s a lot going on, as you might expect from hearing Garbus’ dense synth-pop, layering images over one another in a kind of public access video meltdown. Watch below via Stereogum.
Vulnicura is the album Bjork fans were longing for. Co-producing with white-hot underground beatmaker Arca, Bjork crafts some of her most singular and affecting music yet, writing complex string arrangements that elevate the drama in songs like “Stonemilker” to that of classics like Homogenic’s “Joga” or “Bachelorette.” Vulnicura measures the effects of the end of a relationship—the end of Bjork’s partnership with artist Matthew Barney serves as the catalyst—and she acts as an emotional scientist on tracks like “Lionsong,” tinkering with what’s left in the aftermath (“Should I throw oil on one of these wounds? But which one?”) amid vocal manipulation that calls to mind her work on the voice-centric Medulla. As that striking album art portrays, the core of Vulnicura is a gaping wound. On “History of Touches,” she sees every touch and sexual ecounter as a singularity, illustrated by electronics that glow like an aurora borealis. But her shield of objectivism crumbles on “Black Lake,” Vulnicura’s absolutely devastating centerpiece. Over 10 minutes, Bjork details how hitting absolute bottom at the end of a relationship that feels like a life’s worth of work coming to and end. Every so often, the music, a dark swirl of strings and beats supplied by Bjork and Arca, cuts out for a strange, long coda that feels like a necessary swallowing of air before she delivers the next stanza, sometimes wearily, sometimes desperately. Each time it hits like a punch to the gut. She’s simply never done anything so affecting before; given her catalog, this alone is remarkable.
Earl Sweatshirt – “Grief”
Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt has announced a new album without much notice (as seems to be the going trend these days) called I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and true to that sunny title, “Grief” is an anxiety-riddled trip through Earl’s psyche, over a digitally degraded, hollowed-out beat and cloudy synth. Thankfully, Earl hasn’t gone the slightest bit soft since releasing the excellent Doris in 2013, promising much for I Don’t Go Outside.
Death Grips – “On GP”
The second track from Sacramento’s Death Grips’ supposed last album throws us for another loop, as MC Ride barks imperiously over Zach Hill’s unpredictable rolls a huge riff that sounds like a Neil Young record played through a turbine. Then the whole thing shifts for a dreamier second half, during which Ride’s words become more desperately pointed. It’s an utterly gripping seven-and-a-half minutes of music, one of the best things the band has done. Orders for The Powers That B (due March 31) are through the roof, so get on it!
Record Store Day 2015 is upon us, taking place Saturday, April 18. The list of limited edition releases coming out exclusively on Record Store Day is up now (download the full list here). While there’s tons of great stuff to choose from (while supplies last, of course), here are 12 highlights to look for.
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Neko Case released her best album in 2006, a perfect distillation of her country-meets-indie-rock style, featuring the ethereal and confessional “Hold On, Hold On,” ’50s-style ballad “That Teenage Feeling” and Biblically inspired “John Saw That Number.” The long-out-of-print LP comes on red vinyl with a Record Store Day slipmat.
Johnny Cash – Koncert v Praze (In Prague Live)