Sufjan Stevens playing banjoI’m pretty sure there was a time recently when planes weren’t falling out of the sky and Ted Cruz wasn’t running for President. Not that I know very much about Ted Cruz. Just that all the news can talk about lately is how he announced his candidacy at Liberty University, a school that still believes in a literal reading of Genesis. Which I guess is meant to imply that Ted Cruz also believes in a literal reading of Genesis. Which I guess is meant to indicate how poorly he would run this country if we somehow gave him the chance. I can see how they get there, but it’s a stretch. I have been to a UFO museum but that doesn’t mean I believe in UFOs. Still though, when you look at pictures of Ted Cruz you can tell he’s a real dick, so I guess we all end up in the same place anyway.

The weather has been changing, warming up. At lunch everyone is walking around downtown Dallas in t-shirts. Yesterday I saw three grown men sprinting through the streets like kids, laughing and chasing each other. For a minute the whole cinched-tight, shiny-haired, high-financial world of Dallas loosened up a little bit. I think we were all pretty happy about it.

And it was during all of this that I started listening to Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’ first proper album in almost five years. I couldn’t believe it when Corey told me he had a pre-release (bootlegged?) copy. He sent me a link to a .zip file that I immediately forwarded to five other people.

I listened first at my desk. It was the end of the day on Friday. I couldn’t figure out how to import the files into iTunes so I listened to each track individually by pressing space bar. I don’t understand how computers work anymore, but I manage. The first track opens with a nimble little fingerpicked acoustic line so light hearted it could walk on water. It starts with Sufjan saying he doesn’t know where to start. And then the whole album comes spilling out like Sufjan had been thinking about all of this for a long time and was just now getting a chance to talk about it. Something fragile and forceful at the same time. I listened while I watched the light change in the office and I drank a little bit of Vodka left over from a party we had the other day. When the album was over I was alone and it was almost 7 o’clock.

Carrie and Lowell is mostly about how all of us are going to die, which is something I’ve been coming to terms with myself lately as I’ve read about plane crash after plane crash, and every time for apparently no reason. 150 dead in the French Alps. You start getting used to it. “What did you learn?” Sufjan asks on the song “The Fourth of July,” and then an adolescent version of himself answers, “We’re all gonna die.”

I rode an almost-empty train out of downtown and to my apartment on Mockingbird. I was replaying the album in my head since I couldn’t figure out how to load the songs onto my iPhone. And what I mean is that the feelings of the album lingered. Melancholy and nostalgia and peace. I watched the sun set behind all the buildings. If I were going to try to say something deeper about Carrie and Lowell, I might say it feels like Sufjan is wrestling here with the myths of his childhood the same way he has wrestled on pervious albums with the myths of his religion and the myths of great American cities. These are our stories but what are we supposed to do with them? An absent mother. A planet created in seven days. A man with the broadest shoulders. What do these stories mean now that we’re all grown up? So maybe a simpler assessment would be to say that Carrie and Lowell is about growing up.

It rained all weekend, which gave me plenty of time to learn the necessary computer skills to import Carrie and Lowell into iTunes, then Spotify, and finally onto my phone. I took a skillshare class about basic line drawing but lost interest halfway through and decided to walk across the street to the video rental store, Premier Video, and rent the movie Her. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been inside a video rental store. I was a little shocked this one was still here. There were VHS tapes on the top shelves and a Lethal Weapon 3 poster on the back wall. This whole place reminded me of a time when we didn’t all hate Mel Gibson. I stood in the middle of the store and felt like I was standing in the middle of the past. Like the past was still around in bits and pieces. I don’t think everywhere or everyone is moving through time at the same rate. We’re all over the place. Which is also, I think, a little bit what Carrie and Lowell is about: Time travel. Stepping briefly into the past and having a look around. The girl at the counter asked if I’d seen Her before and I said not yet and she said, “Where have you been?” and smiled. It wasn’t clear which one of us was the anachronism. She looked twenty-two, the same age I was when I stopped believing the world was 6000 years old.

Now that Carrie and Lowell was on my phone I was listening to it all the time. On the train. On my porch. During lunch while I walked around in a t-shirt. I walked to Klyde Warren park where everyone was wearing sunglasses. The sun reflected off their sunglasses and their eyes looked as bright as welders’ torches. I sat at a metal table that was too hot to touch. “I should have known better,” Sufjan was singing. “Nothing can be changed/the past is still the past/a bridge to nowhere.” It’s as if two tracks in he has already realized the pointlessness of recollection, the pointlessness of time travel. And yet he goes on with it anyway. We don’t have much of a choice about the things that haunt us, or the things that we haunt. I watched all the kids in school uniforms playing on the playground and thought about how twenty years from now they might remember their field trip to Downtown Dallas and here I was sitting in the middle of their memory.

Another thing I might say about this album is that it’s the first time Sufjan has really talked about himself. Before now he’d been such a mystery. He wrote songs about the strangest things, maintained almost zero web presence, and for a long time had gone completely silent. I’d sometimes wondered if Sufjan really existed or if he was somebody else’s art project. On Carrie and Lowell, though, I feel like he’s right here. Like by getting to know this album I am getting to know him. These songs are stripped down and raw, and so is he.

I listened to  on the drive out to my parents’ house, which feels like a drive back in time. I passed through the city, the suburbs, and finally out into farmland. Nothing was growing because I guess it’s not time for that right now. It was getting dark. I hadn’t seen my parents in a month, or maybe it had been longer. We ate tacos and ice cream. We watched Dallas beat San Antonio 101 to 94 and sometime during the fourth quarter I pulled a book off my parents’ shelf called Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell, which argues for a literal interpretation of the Bible the same way a lawyer would argue a case. There’s a gavel on the cover. This is where I come from and sometimes it’s hard to come back to it. Every childhood is a tragedy, either because it was bad or because it’s over, but either way it’s something we have to deal with. Which is what Sufjan is doing on Carrie and Lowell: wrestling with the tension between a literal and mythological interpretation of his own past. “Is it real or is it fable?” he asks on the opening track. It’s a question that hovers over the rest of the album. A question that hovers over everything, actually. Like the lights I saw hovering over the empty field on my drive home. Pixels moving around. The Marfa lights 500 miles from home maybe. I passed by them but didn’t give them much thought.


Michael Nagel lives and writes in Dallas, Texas. 

Photo by Joe Lencioni ( via Wikimedia Commons