Dan Wilson (Semisonic) Talks Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell

On Sufjan Stevens’ spare, lo-fi and brilliant new album, joy wages epic battle with desperation and mortality. Spoiler alert: joy wins.

Now that we’ve hit the halfway point, it’s a good time to stop and reflect on all the great music that has been released so far this year. This week, Talkhouse Music is running pieces about some of the most celebrated albums of 2015.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music

On his beautiful new album Carrie & Lowell, in a stark sonic atmosphere of restrained desperation, Sufjan Stevens sings these unsettling lines:

“We all know where this will end…”

“We’re all going to die…”

“I’m a ghost you walk right through…”

“What’s the point of singing songs…”

“The hospital asked should the body be cast…”

The singer’s whispery, hazy, double-tracked voice croons these stark thoughts with signs of neither grief nor joy. The question of whether death is preferable to grief floats close to the surface of the album, but the tone is cool, gentle, dialed-down. So why do I feel so elated every time the album comes to a close?

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Ten years ago, I first heard Stevens’ album Seven Swans (2004) and fell in love with it.

At the time, I was a rock musician moving away from rock sounds, trying to find a way to present my music more simply, more elementally, more acoustically, more plainly than I had with my bands Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare. I was writing songs that wanted to exist as folk songs rather than big rock productions. But it was hard. The simple recordings I was making had a documentary flavor: colorless, transparent.

At that time, my folky yearnings were satisfied by mostly much earlier artists: Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens. New records like James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” and Daniel Powter’s “Had a Bad Day” proclaimed themselves to be folk-rock, but to my ear they were organized more like radio hits than folk songs. Among new albums, only Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002) and Damien Rice’s passionately honest O (2002) moved me like those older classics did.

In that context, Seven Swans was a beautiful shock to my system. Stevens’ deadpan whisper made tasteful Damien Rice sound like a sentimental drunken sailor in comparison. And despite the sonic similarities to Iron & Wine, Seven Swans’ vibe had more in common with Sebadoh or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982): dark, ominous, reticent, abandoned-sounding rather than comfy-cozy. Yes, it was akin to folk music, it used the same guitar voicings and melodic elements, but it was dirty, thinned-out, oddly unlike those earlier folk recordings I loved. The vocal sound was strangely wrong and yet beautiful. The finger-picked banjo sounded like it was emanating from a metal shipping container. Although it was in many places radically empty-sounding, it did rise into folk-orchestral glory here and there, and even in its emptiest moments the record was a sonic experience as well as a song experience. For the next several years, Stevens’ Seven Swans and then his Illinois (2005) were the soundtrack of my days in Minneapolis.

After that, Stevens’ records veered more and more towards baroque excess — The Age of Adz (2010) and a recent live concert rendering of his “Planetarium” being the peak of these elaborations. Adz in particular was a fun but not quite convincing amping-up of rhythmic urgency to Stevens’ music, the sounds being more modern and hard-hitting and yet less impactful than the quieter records, and farther from what makes his music most amazing and affecting.

So the fan in me rejoiced to hear this new album. Carrie & Lowell returns Stevens’ voice to the demo tape vibe of Seven Swans, and the result is deeply moving.

Since first hearing the record, I have learned that it’s an extended response to the 2012 death of Stevens’ mother Carrie, who abandoned him and his siblings when he was one year old. But even before I knew the backstory, the record felt powerfully emotional. And the most mysterious part of the experience was how powerfully that emotion emanated from the music despite its rigorously understated approach.

On this album, Sufjan Stevens’ voice stands naked, exposed, as he sings his darkest and most personal thoughts. Stripping away the orchestral, the pop experiments, the Philip Glass-like woodwind sections, he sings these songs in the most vulnerable possible musical setting. And the openness of this stance pulls us into the songs.

The sound of Carrie & Lowell is thin and reedy, even by Stevens’ usual standards. The fingerpicked guitars sound miniaturized, muted, quietly keeping time as the singer’s voice rises up and down stair-stepping melodies. Other instruments come and go: on “Death with Dignity,” a piano makes a brief melodic appearance a few minutes in, then goes away as quickly as it appears, leaving the singer alone again with those train-track folk guitars. Beautiful steel guitar chords, icy synth notes, wordless voices make similar brief cameos. “Fourth of July” features dark synthesizer notes that ominously answer the vocal lines and quickly recede.

But the focus remains on that sad yet impassive voice, intimately recorded but double-tracked. Like other children of Elliott Smith, Stevens keeps his ultra-quiet voice very still — his singing never goes to 11; in fact, it rarely even goes to 2, and this has never been more true than on Carrie & Lowell. Stevens lets the melodies, rather than vocal expressiveness, do the emotional work. The voice is just a machine for delivering the melodies.

And oh, the melodies! These are ascending, exhilarating melodies, rising into falsetto, falling back down. On the gorgeous and bleak “All of Me Wants All of You,” the breaks to falsetto feel like cool-headed solutions to geometrical puzzles rather than moments of operatic passion.

While the music stays cool, the lyrics of these songs are unrestrained in their passion. And the more the lyrics lurch towards despair, suicide, the humiliations of death, the more the stoicism of the music refuses to follow suit. On “Fourth of July,” about a vigil at a hospital deathbed, sweet and loving phrases like “my firefly,” “my star in the sky” and “my little Versailles,” are answered and answered again by the devastating “we’re all gonna die.” The singer rigorously keeps all pain and violence out of his voice. The music and the voice continue doing their peaceful work without comment, and one’s heart breaks all the more.

Even the most innocent and sweet song on the album, “Eugene,” full of childhood memories and humor, struggles with the permanence of loss. Moments of intimacy in the past, so sweet to contemplate, will never return.

Despite its intense rigor in all other things, this is the most lo-fi Sufjan Stevens record in a long time. In fact, at times the tape hiss and machine noise seem to be players in the drama. In the middle of the song “Carrie & Lowell,” the ever-present noise floor suddenly rises in volume, like a black tide threatening to swallow the music, the characters in the songs and the singer.

If the recording is his most boldly DIY-sounding yet, this is also Stevens’ most powerfully rhythmic as well. And the rhythm brings hope and joy to the proceedings. Turns out these quiet, understated tracks are grooves! And the joy emanating from this rhythm wages epic battle with the desperation of the songs, even in the lyrics. The singer contemplates suicide in “The Only Thing,” but is held back by “Signs and wonders/sea lion caves in the dark.” “Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart,” he continues, weaving for himself the thinnest thread of a reason to continue living, to return to life.

And the most hopeful evidence of the life-force reviving that affectless, depressed voice is the music itself. Carrie & Lowell traces the path of an unstoppable creative impulse, despite hopelessness, despite loss, despite the fear of meaninglessness. Because for us listening, the singer’s sorrow has rebounded back into the world as sound — as playful, geometric, delightful, life-enhancing, joyous music.


Dan Wilson is an artist, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles who is best known as the lead singer of the band Semisonic, for which he wrote the Grammy-nominated smash “Closing Time” as well as other international hits. Since Semisonic, Dan has released two solo albums and has become a highly sought-after songwriting collaborator due to his songwriting, performing and production skills. He has written with and produced a diverse group of artists including  Adele, Dixie Chicks, Chris Stapleton, John Legend, The Head & The Heart, Dierks Bentley, Florence Welch, Jim James, Keith Urban, Carol King, Spoon, Pink, Taylor Swift, and many others. Dan contributed three songs to Adele’s album, 21, including the hit “Someone Like You,” which he also produced, thus earning himself a Grammy for Album of the Year.  A few years earlier, Wilson took home a Song of the Year Grammy for “Not Ready to Make Nice,” one of six songs he co-wrote for the Dixie Chicks’ award-winning album Taking the Long Way. Wilson’s third solo album, Love Without Fear, was released in 2014. Recently, Dan co-wrote nine songs on Phantogram’s new album Three, including their single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” (which he also co-produced). You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and his website is here.