“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.
Are you as sick as I am of seeing “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” quoted on Facebook? Here are some newer tunes inspired by the end of the Mayan Calendar.
Dent May – “2099”
Just released this week, Mississippi indie pop great Dent May has released a dance-pop track inspired by the end of the world — which will take place in 87 years, apparently (actually that seems sort of plausible). “Are you afraid of what tomorrow’s gonna bring?” he asks before declaring “If we all die by a nuclear war/We’re gonna go out on the dancing floor.” Dent May’s Do Things was released this year on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, it’s great and super underrated, check it out!
Hunter Hunted – “End of the World”
L.A. band Hunter Hunted have released this video to their KCRW-touted track “End of the World.” Despite its Road Warrior look, they make the apocalypse seem like a lot of fun. They’re at the Troubador Feb. 12.
1. Beach House - Bloom
Song for song, Beach House’s Bloom is the most consistently great album that’s been released this year. The band sounds more energized than ever, grasping the pop brass ring with songs like “Lazuli” and “Other People” that match hookiness for sheer beauty. If Beach House are this generation’s Cocteau Twins, this is their Heaven or Las Vegas.
2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel …
Fiona Apple is no less mad or maddening than before on The Idler Wheel…, but her venomous lyrics have a new sting, her vocals are more accomplished than ever, and her arrangements are as bravely tangled and unafraid of ugliness as her lyrical content.
Check out the dubsteppy “Lost Boys” and head-spinning electro-rap of “Get Got” for a taste.
Coming out Tuesday was the first full-length release from darkwave purveyors Light Asylum, who floored us with 2010’s In Tension EP. Light Asylum delivers as frontwoman Shannon Funchess growls over black rainbow of electronic sound — like freestyle dance music put through the industrial meat grinder. Fuchness and collaborator Bruno Coviello are as capable of extreme aggression (the chilling “Pope Will Roll”) as they are of creating pop thrills with real bite (“IPC” and “Heart of Dust”) and genuinely affecting electro-ballads — “Sins of the Flesh” and “Shallow Tears” dig past their electronic veneers given Funchess’ operatic howl, a Grace Jones-meets-Trent Reznor monster of a voice that can break your heart just as it can make you cower. This is the real deal, an enthralling and sometimes harrowing listen, and a must-hear for any fan of bitterly great music.