How To Be Alone: Musicians Confront Solitude

April 1, 2015 4:50 PM

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In his formal, disarmingly humble way, Sufjan Stevens accomplishes something remarkable in the first notes of his new album, Carrie & Lowell. After a Bach-like interlude plucked on a ukulele, Stevens opens this confessional meditation on mourning and reconciliation with a characteristic whisper. "Spirit of my silence, I can hear you," he sings, going straight up a major scale as if this were a morning matin in some folk mass-obsessed abbey. "But I'm afraid to be near you, and I don't know where to begin." It's logical to assume that the spirit he invokes is that of Carrie, the mentally ill mother who abandoned him as a child and died, still mostly a mystery, in 2012. It's she, along with the second husband she also abandoned, who gives the album its title. But reviewers have been picking up on that first line for a different reason. It's a challenge Stevens poses to himself, to make space for a presence that continually gets lost in the human shuffle. This idiosyncratically Christian artist might call that presence God, but he could also call it beauty, or inspiration, or vastness, or solitude, or even nothing — all the names for the unnameable that artists and holy people have conjured over the years.

It's never been easy, in the modern world, to sit with the unnameable. The extremes people embrace in order to simply be, united with and humbled by creation, are the subject of a huge body of literature stretching from ancient texts to today's self-help e-books, and of visual art and theater rangin...

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