Sufjan Stevens’ new album, “Carrie and Lowell,” is his best concept album ever, reports freelance music writer Charlie Zaillian. Stevens performs two nights at the Paramount Theatre, Wednesday and Thursday, June 10-11.
Have you heard “Benji” by Mark Kozelek, alias Sun Kil Moon? You probably should. If not the great American novel in song form — and some think so — the tell-all album was one of last year’s best, and certainly its most heart-wrenching.
“Carrie and Lowell” by Sufjan Stevens — who plays the Paramount Theatre Wednesday and Thursday (June 10-11) — is this year’s “Benji.” Not only does it rival the tragic beauty of the Kozelek record, it blows away Stevens’ previous great concept albums “Michigan” and “Illinois.”
On the new album, the Detroit-born, Brooklyn-based songsmith returns to the unpretentious essence that attracted fans to him in the first place, before forays into classical (“The BQE”), EDM (“Age of Adz”) and a five-disc, 59-track — not a misprint — Christmas album (“Silver and Gold”).
Sufjan Stevens, Helado Negro
8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, June 10-11, at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $35.75 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
Named for his mother, Carrie, who died in 2012, and her second husband, “Carrie and Lowell” is set in the Northwest — Eugene, Ore. — where Stevens spent summers as a young boy in the early ’80s.
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Carrie, who split from Sufjan’s father when he was a baby, later fell into alcoholism and substance abuse and missed her son’s teens and 20s. The 11 songs on the record vividly convey his nostalgia for happier times, the resentment he felt for her absence and how hard her death hit him.
It’s heavy stuff. If you somehow make it through the first track (“Death With Dignity”) without sobbing, you’ll likely lose it by the lilting “Fourth of July,” a heart-to-heart between Sufjan and Carrie on her deathbed, trading verses, making amends.
Ultimately, “Carrie and Lowell” is about forgiveness and honoring her memory.
The biographical narrative has a nice real-life counterpart: Stevens and stepdad Lowell remain so close they run a record label together, Asthmatic Kitty.
Musically, the album is flat-out gorgeous — a return, in part, to the sound of Stevens’ all-acoustic “Seven Swans,” but with the benefit of 10 more years of songwriting experience.
Honesty is apparently becoming a theme among lifer singer-songwriters, and it’s making for fascinating listening. For another, more optimistic take, check out “Describes Things As They Are,” by Beauty Pill, a Washington, D.C., band whose leader, Chad Clark, underwent emergency open-heart surgery for a rare illness and survived to tell about it.
Stevens dared us to write him off by going off the deep end musically in recent years, but with “Carrie and Lowell” he’s back on track.
Still only 39, he might actually be entering his prime. If there was ever a time to see him live, it’s now. You’ll have two chances this week.