I have a confession, gentle reader, and I hope the same grace which brings me to admit my sin also inspires you to forgive it. When last we met, I declared the impossibility of the singer-songwriter in 2015. Sincerity is dead, I thought, taking with it our affable acoustic mensches. I spoke too soon. (Even tastemakers are mortal.) 

I underestimated a certain musician from Detroit with a penchant for geographic grandiosity. If Father John Misty is the crucifixion of songwriting, then Sufjan Stevens is the resurrection.
To be fair, Stevens is an unlikely martyr. The year 2005 belonged to the baroque absurdity of his record “Illinois,” with its soaring choruses and site-specific splendor. What business does Stevens have in 2015, being five years removed from his last LP (unless you count the disturbing amount of Christmas music he has recorded, which sounded more like the data-driven apocalypse than a flurry of hushed hymnals)? After all the left turns his career has taken, Stevens goes the one unexpected route remaining with “Carrie & Lowell”: making a straightforward folk album.

No, “Carrie & Lowell” is not the fifty-first state. Stevens doesn’t humanize the midwest’s most famous serial killer, nor does he harmonize with gospel choirs in praise of God. These eleven songs are not sweeping declarations of anything, really, except the muted intimacy of childhood. The record is named for Stevens’ mother and stepfather, two parents trying to hold together a family as it disintegrates in the midst of disease and drug addiction. It is as if “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the heart-wrenching opus on “Illinois” about an ambiguously gendered subject’s relationship to faith while dying of leukemia (and doubling as a history lesson in military holidays), was not entirely fiction. On “Carrie & Lowell,” Stevens doesn’t have to weave grand narrative arcs with oblique metaphors in order to convey the desperation of sickness and of love—the pain was inside him all along.

Carrie’s ghost haunts every song on the album. She died in 2012, but Stevens recounts that she had abandoned him long before that, whether she forgets about her toddler at a Blockbuster or takes him on a car ride and drug trip to Oregon. As much as he may wish it, Stevens cannot escape the memory of his mother, whom he both pines for and despises. 

“I don’t know where to begin,” he admits on “Death with Dignity,” awash in memories too painful to confront head on. But he attempts a start, regardless: forgiveness.

Yet what happens when death robs us of the chance to forgive? On “All of Me Wants All of You,” Stevens wonders, “shall we beat this or celebrate it,” wondering if it’s better for his mother’s illnesses to end with death or if she should keep fighting. The backdrop, of course, is their troubled relationship—more time to live means more time to be let down as much as it does more time to earn redemption. “I’m just a ghost you walk right through,” he continues, conflating himself with his mother’s apparition and the ephemera of innocence. “Now all of me thinks less of you,” he confesses. But that doesn’t break the bonds of familial love as he sings, “all of me wants all of you.”

The most important lesson we learn from our parents isn’t something they can teach us. It happens slowly, the decay of their superhero status, though Stevens realized it quicker than most. Witnessing the unbearable humanness of mothers—imperfection, ambiguity, mortality—devastates us, threatening even our own eternity. Stevens employs his historic falsetto to make this point: “we’re all gonna die,” and even now “in a manner of speaking” we’re already dead. Our parents’ mortality is our own, even if their mistakes are not.

I’m not sure “Carrie & Lowell” is the best record in Stevens’ discography, but it is the best record of the year. With it, he does more than redeem the singer-songwriter—he redeems his mother, turning it into the redemption of the human race. 

Loss stems from love, Stevens reminds us—even as he wishes he could tear his eyes and his arms out to numb his senses. He urges, “Everything I see returns to you somehow,” mother, center of the universe, black hole, “should I tear my heart out now?” And when fireworks blossom on the Fourth of July, a rainbow salute to passing, may we remember what it means to love and be loved.