The gospel according to Sufjan Stevens

It’s Holy Week — the week leading up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter — and Sufjan Stevens has dropped a new album. He couldn’t have timed its release any better, for the album sums up all of the joy and agony of Holy Week in ways I’ve rarely experienced it before.

The album, named Carrie & Lowell after his mother and step-father, could have been the Oregon album of his abandoned Fifty States project, with all of its Oregon name-drops (Spencer Butte, Eugene, Cottage Grove, the Tillamook Burn, Emerald Park, The Dalles, and more). From what he’s mentioned in various interviews, time spent in Oregon was a “season of hope” in an otherwise painful childhood. For his mother was bipolar and schizophrenic and struggled with substance abuse before dying of stomach cancer in 2012. Throughout his childhood, she abandoned him numerous times. Lowell Brams was married to her for five years but still remains an important part of Stevens’ life, running the music label, Asthmatic Kitty, which they formed together.

That story and those relationships are the fabric of the album which is heart-breaking to listen to, for suffering and death are everywhere in it. But Stevens doesn’t whine or sulk. He loves. He forgives. And not with an easy wave of the hand as if it doesn’t matter. His tenderness toward his mother reminds me of James Houston’s words: “To be an adult is to acknowledge how much your parents messed you up. To be mature is to forgive them.

Along with dealing with abandonment, Stevens also expresses times of self-rejection in the album and times of confession. The barest of these is the simple, “F*** me, I’m falling apart” from the song “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.”

And no, there is no shade in the shadow of the cross. The cross is exposure. Just as Jesus was exposed, so are we. And Stevens shows us what that looks like with an honesty that isn’t exhibitionist. But even with the brutal moments of the album, there are its beautiful moments. Musically and vocally, there is a yearning that is aching and lovely at the same time. Often, the two are woven together lyrically as in the closing lines of “John My Beloved” — “Jesus, I need you be near me/Come shield me from fossils that follow my head/There’s only a shadow of me/In a matter of speaking I’m dead.” And again in the last lines of “Blue Bucket of Gold,” the final song of the album — “Lord, touch me with lightning/Raise your right hand/Tell me you’ll want me in your life/Or raise your red flag/Just when I want you in my life.”

In those lines, during this Holy Week, I hear echoes of Jesus on the cross. At one point he takes care of his mother and at another, he says, “I thirst.” At one point, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and at another he trustingly breathes, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.” Love and pain, anguish and trust. The whole human experience is here. None of it left out. All of it redeemable. All of it redeemed.

[The album inspired another post on death and forgiving our parents:]