An album about death for a time of dying

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Sufjan Stevens is an American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from Detroit, Michigan.  Photo via    @stevens.sufjan

Sufjan Stevens is an American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from Detroit, Michigan. Photo via @stevens.sufjan

 Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie & Lowell’ turns five

Sufjan Stevens has been dear to me for some time now. This may come as no surprise to any of my friends who know how many flannels I have in my closet or that I’m a college music journalist. Sufjan’s simple yet intensely personal songwriting and consistent, perfect orchestration always touches something in my soul that few music does, and consistently so. His 2015 work “Carrie & Lowell” was released not long after the death of his mother, referenced in the album’s title along with his stepfather. In “Carrie,” Sufjan takes a step back from the maximalist electronic production he brought forth on his 2010 work, “The Age of Adz,” instead choosing for a much more rustic, acoustic sound. It’s a beautiful album, but I’m not really here to talk about that. You’ll know that when you listen to it. 

As we stay isolated in our homes, thousands of people in the world are passing away every day. In the United States alone, 660 people have died today. That’s just at the time of writing (5:45 p.m. EST on April 1); by the time you read this Thursday morning, it’s likely 1,000 more will have passed. It’s numbing to hear the President say that the best-case scenario is that 100,000 to 200,000 Americans will die from COVID-19. No one knows the true bottom of this crisis, and the sheer number of cases and deaths can be hard to take in. 

This album reminds you that it’s easy to refresh the statistics page and see the numbers climb up, but they’re not numbers. They’re people’s lives taken from them, and everyone they knew will be changed by that. I’m forever grateful for this album, but if Sufjan Stevens wasn’t Sufjan Stevens, Carrie would just be a number too. When this all finally finishes, we will emerge a shattered and broken world, torn apart by a half-alive virus that took advantage of the rots we failed to suture in society. Each one of those tears is an album like “Carrie & Lowell;” a void in the shape of someone who used to be. 

My grandfather died last November from an aging-related illness, just before Thanksgiving. It was both sudden and not at all. We had about two days of notice that it was coming. I saw him for the last time two months prior when I had surprised my family, including my dad (his son [that’s how grandparents work]) by flying from Hartford to Tampa for his 90th birthday celebration. Dad was able to make it back down south for his services, but my mom and I had to stay northerly for her seasonal show in Philadelphia. The two of us drove from home to northern New Jersey for our annual family Thanksgiving weekend at her cousins’ house, and about a half-hour in we tuned into my grandfather’s synagogue’s website to livestream services. We drove wordlessly, hearing his family speak about his life and those he touched. I heard my dad cry hundreds of miles away. I was destroyed by the loss of a great man, and grateful for modern technology to allow us to hear such eulogizing through a 4G signal. Months later, this digitizing of grievances has become a harrowing reality, as COVID-19 patients are dying across the globe, and their loved ones often cannot come near. No digital medium can replicate the importance of being near a loved one as they pass on. 

After my grandfather’s funeral, I put on this album. If you are having similar thoughts about the incalculable toll that this plague is having on humanity right now, there isn’t any piece of music I could recommend more.

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Daniel Cohn is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.cohn@uconn.edu.

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