Artists hide. It’s what they do. They often create problems for themselves so that they’ll have something to write about. They fine-tune their empathy, so that they can feel the pain of others, while they ignore their own. They’ll engage in projects that suggest they don’t take life particularly seriously, and then go home and cry in their beer, or worse. Their audiences often gain emotional sustenance and comfort from the work the artist creates, but rarely does that work provide much in the way of lasting comfort to the artist him or herself.
Inevitably, real life knocks at the door, and the artist, just like a “normal person,” can no longer hide. No more once-removed theorizing on the pain of others, no more glitter-adorned costumes, no more clever reimagining of Christmas music, and the like.
The glitter, the Christmas songs – these refer to Sufjan Stevens, who has spent the last several years indulging in both, while pursuing wildly ambitious concepts, collaborating with a broad array of artists, and generally doing everything but turning the spotlight toward himself. One got the impression that the virtuosic singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was on the run.
“This is not my art project; this is my life,” Stevens told Pitchfork shortly after the 2015 release of “Carrie & Lowell,” making it clear that the album marked an at least temporary turning away from the flurry of activity that seemed to be masking some raw and uncomfortable truths.
Stevens, who included a stop at Asbury Hall at Babeville as part of his 2012 “Christmas Sing-along Tour,” was ready to abandon “art projects” in order to simply be himself. “Carrie & Lowell” took its name from Stevens’ mother and stepfather, and followed shortly after the death of his bipolar and schizophrenic mother, from whom he’d spent most of his life estranged. This was not the kind of songwriting that could be dressed up in tinsel. This would, by necessity, be the sort of sparse but finely detailed and emotion-soaked indie-folk-pop that, when all is said and done, is Stevens’ true forte.
It didn’t take long following its release for “Carrie & Lowell” to be named one of the year’s best to-date by critics who had apparently been anxious for Stevens to simply be Stevens once again, minus the overarching “big ideas.” This makes sense – the album is quite likely his most emotionally compelling and direct, yet it filters such qualities through an ambitious and deeply-musical filter, allowing Stevens’ voice to sit front and center, buoyed by arrangements that are dense and interesting, though never cluttered.
You’d think, given the subject matter, that “Carrie & Lowell” would be rough-going, but it’s not. Stevens retains a sense of wonder, an insistence on levity, and a refusal to be maudlin, even when pondering the heaviest of heavy issues. “Carrie & Lowell” has emotional forebears – think Elliott Smith’s “XO,” or the entire recorded oeuvre of Nick Drake – but unlike Smith and Drake, Stevens does not sound defeated. In fact, he sounds fully engaged in what he calls in one of his own songs a “season of hope.”
Stevens brings his “Carrie & Lowell” tour to the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts at 8 p.m. Oct. 30. . Tickets are $45.30 (box office, Tickets.com).