Brow Beat

Sufjan Stevens’ New Single Is an Autobiographical Exploration of Grief

The cover of Carrie & Lowell.

Asthmatic Kitty Records

When Sufjan Stevens announced his forthcoming album Carrie & Lowell, it was clear that the project would be a return to the folk sound that endeared him to listeners in albums like Michigan and Seven Swans, but we didn’t learn much about the the impetus for the new album. In an interview with Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal last month, Stevens provided more context, explaining that the album is named after his mother, who abandoned his family when Stevens was 1, and the man she married a few years later. Carrie died in 2012, and Stevens said Carrie & Lowell was “necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. … This is not my art project; this is my life.”

Now Stevens has released the album’s second track, the intimate, autobiographical “Should Have Known Better”:

From the first verse, “Should Have Known Better” is pure indie-folk melancholy—it sounds like it could be an outtake from Elliot Smith’s XO—and the lyrics are full of regret and grief, with repeated references to “my black shroud.” But a little more than halfway through, the addition of piano and synthesizer transforms the song into a hopeful meditation on the future. It embodies what Stevens described in the Pitchfork interview as “my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.”