Sufjan Stevens once made a joke about how he was going to write an album for every state in the union. That he then followed this by writing both about Illinois and Michigan seemed to imply it wasn’t one. For those holding out hope it might still happen, his latest record is probably quite the tease.

Having lived here my whole life, I forget that Oregon isn’t really like other places. I mean, it’s like Washington of course, but most of our country is not made up of places that have ocean coastline, mountain ranges, high desert, temperate rain forest, and prairie all within a few hour’s drive of each other. It has for some people achieved somewhat mythical status and stands out as remarkably well-represented as a mecca for nature-lovers, adventurers, and seekers of peace alike.

What brought Sufjan Stevens to Oregon wasn’t nearly so romantic or whimsical. Reunited with his estranged mother through the efforts of her second husband, Stevens spent time here in fits a spurts as a child until the relationship once again deteriorated. “Carrie & Lowell” recalls that time and place while simultaneously probing his grief in the face of Carrie availing herself of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. There is a candid intimacy to this music that conveys a sense of emotional and visceral locus more powerfully than almost any I have ever encountered.

Such A Long Time Ago

I concede, my own degree of susceptibility to this record might be fairly apparent. The aching eloquent lament of a grown person with mommy-issues recalling a dappled Oregon childhood has some pretty obvious resonance for me. That truth notwithstanding my daughter, who isn’t burdened with these same concerns, also found the album all but irresistible. We listened to it on our way to Bend last weekend and she was humming one of my favorite tracks for the better part of the following day until she asked if we could listen to the entire record again on the way home.

It is, as all my favorite albums are, a suite of music. Each song is deliberately linked in melody, theme, and tone to every other. It has the feeling of a progression through a landscape both internal and peripheral. Stevens’ characteristically gentle guitar and vocals perfectly evoke the longing, sorrow, and grief he explicitly acknowledges inspired his songwriting. That being said, it is patently not a sad record. The melodies and message are both infused with a certain weightlessness that rarely accompanies music about death, loss, and regret. When he says “we’re all gonna die,” over and over, it feels not like a condemnation, but a reassuring statement of fact.

The music rambles all over its vast setting. From the Tillamook burn to the Sea Lion Caves. From Cottage Grove to The Dalles, each song speaks to some corner of Oregon and of Stevens’ memory in concert. In doing, it never forfeits a sense of connectedness within that scope. Much like the state in which it is set, varied though the conditions might be, it remains bound together by shared inevitabilities, circumstances, and space. Though I’m still convinced he has no intention of completing the task of an album for every state, Sufjan Stevens has rendered a beautifully realized offering for Oregon, nevertheless.

Highly recommended.