Sufjan Stevens albums have always had a certain amount of gimmickry to transcend.
There was the instrumental tribute to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. He cobbled together a 5-CD box set of traditional and newly created Christmas carols. And there were album-length explorations of Michigan and, of course, Illinois.
But "Carrie & Lowell" (Asthmatic Kitty) puts all that aside for a stunningly frank examination of Stevens' relationship with his mother, Carrie, who died in 2012 from stomach cancer, though Stevens said she had a lifetime of schizophrenia, depression and alcoholism.
"Every road leads to an end," Stevens sings in the album's straightforward opener, "Death with Dignity." "You'll never see us again."
The most moving part of the song, though, isn't the words, but the sound Stevens makes at the end -- a mix of an angelic choir and haunting strings with what sounds like moans of pain. That sound is a remarkable approximation of the mix of emotions that comes from the death of a loved one who has suffered with a long-term illness.
Following that, the 39-year-old Stevens spends most of "Carrie & Lowell" (Lowell is Stevens' stepfather) trying to come to terms with his mother's death and her lengthy absence in his life, using his tools of indie-folk storytelling and guitars.
"Should I tear my eyes out now?" he wonders in the wrenching "The Only Thing." "Everything I see returns to you somehow." Later, he adds, "I wanna save you from your sorrow."
Stevens offers no easy answers here and don't expect some clever, uptempo moment to interrupt the mourning. His plan for dealing with death is to accept it as part of life and to do what you can to honor those who have passed. That's what he does with "Carrie & Lowell," honoring his mother with his voice, his words and the truth of how she affected his life.
"Carrie & Lowell"
THE GRADE A-
BOTTOM LINEMaking musical sense of a troubled relationship