This week saw the release of “Should Have Known Better,” the second single off Sufjan Stevens’s upcoming album, “Carrie and Lowell.” Shrouded almost completely in autobiographical references, the song suggests that a personal tone will dominate much of the album, which is named for his mother and stepfather. Whatever the case, “Should Have Known Better” is putting a strong foot forward for Stevens’s new work.
Like the first single, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” “Should Have Known Better” features a very sparse arrangement: acoustic guitar, an electric piano, and a very understated backing chorus. Gone are the trumpet flourishes of “Illinois” and the synthesizers of “The Age of Adz.” Nevertheless, the artistry in production is admirable: at no point does any part of the backing overtake the acoustic guitar or Stevens’s half-whispered lilt. This is not a lo-fi aesthetic.
On the other hand, the lyrics are a significant departure from the closely focused poetry of lead single “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” and resemble in some ways the more impressionistic lyrics from his previous work. In spite of their somewhat mysterious (and some might say obscure) portent, they are full of melancholy for the past set against hope for the future. The message seems to be encapsulated in the seventh verse: “I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / The bridge to nowhere.” In the final verse, Stevens sets the past against the future directly, singing: “Don’t back down: nothing can be changed / … My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination .”
If “Should Have Known Better” and “No Shade” are to be taken as programmatic statements on the new album, “Carrie and Lowell” has a sorrow at its core that is unusual even in the context of Stevens’s other work, and even more emotional effectiveness.
—Staff writer Jude D. Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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