Sufjan Stevens – ‘Carrie & Lowell’
They say you can’t go home again, but on the face of it Sufjan Stevens does exactly that on seventh album proper, ‘Carrie & Lowell’.
It’s a return, of sorts, to the one-man indie-folk that was his bread and butter before the sumptuous ‘Illinois’ and flailing electronic lunacy of ‘Age of Adz’. And it’s also a record inspired by home and memories of it: ‘Carrie’ is Stevens’s late mother, whose life and death haunts the album (Lowell, his stepdad, is a more ephemeral figure).
‘I forgive you mother, I can hear you… you’ll never see us again,’ he coos on opener ‘Death with Dignity’, over brightly plucked acoustics. It is an unbearably sad moment, and not the last on the album, yet ‘Carrie & Lowell’ isn’t the magnum opus of stripped-back bleakness you might be bracing for.
For starters, it’s only superficially a folk record. It’s a quiet record on which acoustic instruments tend to be the loudest thing. But beneath the sparkling guitars lurk lush electronic disturbances: distorted pianos, pulsing machine percussion, eerie ambient washes. At its most out there, as on ‘Fourth of July’, 'Carrie & Lowell’ sounds closer to Tim Hecker or Pantha du Prince than it does to Stevens’s own ‘Michigan’ or ‘Seven Swans’.
And though death informs it, it never overwhelms it: tunes like ‘Should Have Known Better’ or ‘Eugene’ are more excavations into hazy childhood memories of Carrie than laments for her passing. And Stevens’s sense of whimsy blunts the bleakness: the presumably allegorical ‘Fourth of July’ sees him breathily mourning a series of deceased animals, while the suicidal lyrics to ‘The Only Thing’ are delivered with a breathy, wide-eyed wonder.
There’s also plenty of characteristically lovely coyness about his religion and sexuality, with the rather startling line ‘you checked your texts while I masturbated’ (on ‘All of Me Wants All of You’) surely destined to be quoted in every review. Despite soul-baring moments, it almost feels like we learn more about Carrie than we do her son; he remains a beautiful enigma.
In case you didn’t know, Scandinavia is cool right now. The food, the fashion, the facial hair – plus the Vikings have invaded the British Museum. All we need next is a healthy economy, a reliable public transport system and a sense of social justice, and London will be indistinguishable from Oslo. Meanwhile in Hackney, there’s yet another Northern European-inspired incursion. Or apparently so: the website claims this bar-restaurant-club draws on ‘a Nordic aesthetic’, although it’s not immediately obvious within. Oslo occupies the previously deserted old Hackney rail station and takes on a bit of a railway theme with its luggage-rack lighting, plus there are industrial stylings that give the whole place a Janet Jackson ‘Rhythm Nation’ video feel. The restaurant part is rather fancy, its food incorporating a few of the forages, pickles, jellies and marinations of New Nordic cooking. The kitchen is regularly given over to guest chefs, and you have to book – it’s always heaving. Eat in the bar and the food is more straightforward. Where once the standard snack in pubs was a toastie, sausage roll or pork pie, now it’s the slider or fried chicken. These are served alongside frankly obscene portions of chips, slathered with the likes of cured bacon fat and bacon salt, or braised oxtail, gravy and cheese. There’s a commendable range of craft beers from the vicinity, including a couple from Five Points Brewing just five minutes up the road at the Downs.Head upstairs and you’ll find a
Venue says: “Join us every Thursday night until late for Soul Soul Soul – a night of vinyl appreciation with DJs playing soul, funk, disco and more.”