Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium


This project began in 2011 when Nico Muhly was commissioned to write a song cycle by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven. Originally toured in 2012, it’s taken a further two-and-a-half Martian solar orbits for it to finally find a terrestrial release. The mission is a tough one. Any concept album about the solar system has to navigate between Holst, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and a Yes album from the mid-1970s. Inevitably, the temptation with an idea of this sort is to accentuate the ethereal and eliminate the material. But here the trajectory has been calculated to perfection. That’s in no small part due to Sufjan Stevens. In any context, his fragile, quavery voice instinctively communicates a sense of space. Here, it’s also liberally auto-tuned, giving it an extra-dimensional quality too. But it’s the combination of the voice and the lyrical content that really resonates. The words act as a resolutely earthly counterpoint to the infinitesimally large musical themes. “The youngest of children/ A cannibal addiction/ Innocent victim, bite mark, body part/ When in secret siege, we eat them.” If that’s Life on Mars, then the leafy suburbs of Western Europe will do just fine, thank you very much. For sure, there’s a certain disjointedness that echoes the recent outing by Bon Iver, but there are also tracks that would grace a genuine Sufjan Stevens album, notably ‘Mercury’, ‘Venus’, and ‘Neptune’. The result is like nothing on Earth. So, let yourself go. Take a trip to the Planetarium. And enjoy.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Live)


Sufjan Stevens has done us all a favour. When the Trumpian apocalypse comes, when we’re sitting in our homemade shelter, when we’ve used up our final Nespresso capsule, and when the bars on our iPhone disappear for the very last time, then we can still put on Carrie & Lowell and realise that someone, somewhere is worse off than we are. For Carrie & Lowell is the ultimate feel-bad album. There’s not a moment of even faintly uplifting sentiment, never mind outright comic relief. Question: “What did you learn from Tillermook burn, or the Fourth of July? Answer: “We’re all gonna die”. Turning an album like Carrie & Lowell into a live show seems like one of those things artists do when they’re trying to escape from a major-label contract because of artistic differences. Yet, this is Sufjan Stevens. He runs the record label. More importantly, he also knows how to put on a live show. That’s not to say he turns the most maudlin album of 2015 into an all-singing, all-dancing musical extravaganza, but he does know how to play with tempo, pitch, and harmony to bring out the best of any material. Live, the original songs lose none of their intimacy. The creak of what seems to be the piano seat can be heard. But they also gain in stature. The orchestration is fuller. The song order is also slightly rearranged to create a little more drama. And a couple of non-album songs are added. Carrie & Lowell was already one of the great albums of the 2010s. This version complements it perfectly. It’s no fun fair, to be sure. But it is human life. Question: “What did you learn from Tillermook burn, or the Fourth of July? Answer: “We’re all gonna die”.

What do you get for the artist who has everything at this time of the year? A mention on the Half-Life Music Best of 2015 list, of course. Here are my favourite albums of the year. Artists, you’re welcome. Happy Holidays.

Joanna Newsom – Divers


My favourite album of the year was full of wonderfully elliptical phrases, both musically and lyrically. There were hints of earlier work. ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’ had a distinct ‘Monkey & Bear’ feel. Yet this is an songwriter who showed that she is maturing with every album. There was simply nothing to compare with it.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell


An album about maternal abandonment and death? Only his Sufjanness could write this most beautiful set of songs about such a miserable theme. Just the thing to put on at that point in the holiday when the merriment becomes just a little bit too much.

Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes


If Mark Kozelek has a marketing manager, then she or he must surely have been doing a face palm at the very moment when this album came out. Mr Moon’s frankly offensive comments to a journalist on the eve of its release overshadowed the critical reception to the album. To be fair, the music press still tried to assess the album dispassionately, but it was difficult. Yet this was a masterpiece. Woven together across the different tracks, the observations were pointillistic, but the themes were indeed universal.

My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall


‘Only Memories Remain’ was the wistful coda to a triumphant return to form from the Jacketeers. It pointed to the fact that underneath the rollicking riffs and shimmery synths, there were some darker themes to The Waterfall.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell


His Sufjanness is back and he’s making us all very sad. Well flagged in advance, Carrie & Lowell refers to his late mother and stepfather. Carrie died in 2012, providing the immediate catalyst for this most beautifully elegiac set of songs. More than that, though, Carrie shaped Sufjan’s upbringing by abandoning him on various occasions from his very earliest years. In one sense, the narrative can be delivered perfectly straightforwardly. “When I was three, three maybe four”, we’re told, “She left us at that video store”. Her leaving must have been as difficult to comprehend then as it is now. “What did I do to deserve this now?”, he asks, “How did this happen?” But in the end there’s no rancour. No bitterness. “I forgive you, mother”, he cries. Yet closure is almost impossible. “What’s left is only bittersweet, For the rest of my life”. Framed by fragile vocals. Wrapped in wondrous melodies. The songs are as heartbreaking as the story itself. Perhaps the most affecting moments are on ‘Fourth of July’. Set on her deathbed, the lyrics are full of endearments. “My firefly”, “My little hawk”, “My little dove”, “My little loon”. At times, Sufjan sings both of his mother and to his mother. “Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth, Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?”. But in an almost imperceptibly different register, he also sings as his mother. “Did you get enough love, my little dove, Why do you cry? And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, Though it never felt right, My little Versailles.” While Carrie & Lowell can be read like a novella told in almost linear fashion, what’s striking are the allusions and asides that complicate the story and add depth to it. There are references to Greek mythology and, naturally, to The Bible. There are also half-mentions of places and events that no doubt resonate personally, but to which we are not made party. And then there are the outbursts whose meaning we can only wonder at. “Head of a rabbit”. Carrie & Lowell may be the result of a lifetime of disconnection, but it’s also a product of enduring love. It’s a combination that finds Sufjan Stevens at his most moving lyrically and his very best musically.

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review

The AV Club review

Pretty Much Amazing review

Paste review

Pretty much top of my wish list for 2015 were albums by Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens. I didn’t expect either. But, guess what? Both have announced new releases.

Elvis Perkins and his friends In Dearland have announced a new offering, I Aubade, which will see the light of day on 24 February and, hopefully, 20 February in Ireland. Hurrah! Here’s the first song. It’s typically idiosyncratic.

Meanwhile, just today Asthmatic Kitty have featured a teaser for the new Sufjan Stevens album. We’re told it’s out on 31 March (and, hopefully, 27 March in Ireland). It’s called Carrie & Lowell. I’ve never heard of that state.

From the teaser, it sounds like Sufjan has returned to his Illinoise roots after the horrendous parping that marked Age of Adz. Oh praise be!

Sufjan Stevens – Silver & Gold

Reputedly, there are only three people who understand the Schleswig-Holstein question. One is dead. One is mad. The other has forgotten. By the same token, there is only one person who really understands the Sufjan Stevens question. Luckily, he is not dead, and, thankfully, he remembers how to make music. Mad music. This time Sufjan has delivered 5 EPs of Christmas music dating from 2006-2010. The beauty of the collection is that it spans the period from his Illinoise moment through to the post-Age of Adz period and includes lots of Sufjan originals. The downside is that you have to put up with renditions of old favourites like ‘Silent Night’, which even his Sufjanness cannot fundamentally transform.  The Illinoise-era EP contains some great tracks that would have graced The Avalanche set of outtakes from that time. Indeed, the most realised track from this time, ‘Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree)’, is worthy of the majestic Illinoise album itself. EPs 2 and 4 are cold and difficult to like. The third EP contains some full-on Age of Adz Sufjan. If you thought this experimental new sound was extraordinary, then you’ll love it. If you thought the burping electronica and farting synths were unlistenable, then pass on. The real interest lies in EP no. 5. There are a couple of throw-away nuggets and some standards, but there are also some wonderful new songs. Whereas some of the Illinoise-era songs on EP 1 are a little bit unrealised, here the sound is much fuller and more confident. ‘Up on the Housetop’ borders on the funky. ‘Justice Delivers Its Death’ is not as depressing as you might think. But ‘Christmas Unicorn’ is the stand-out. The lyrics are hilarious. “I’m a Christmas Unicorn! In a uniform made of gold, With a billy-goat beard, and a sorcerer’s shield, and mistletoe on my nose!”. It gradually builds until the point where the singers start chanting “I’m a Christmas Unicorn” over and over. Thank you very much, you think. But, no. There’s more. The melody changes slightly and suddenly everyone is singing “Love, Love Will Tear Us Apart”. In Sufjan’s world, when two phrases have same number of syllables, you can do anything with them. EP no. 5 doesn’t so much mark a new departure in Sufjan’s music. In fact, there are times when it sounds very like the ‘All Delighted People’ EP that preceded Age of Adz. But it does remind us that he still has plenty of ideas buzzing round in his head. And that can only be a good thing. Ho, ho, ho!