Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

Sufjan Stevens seldom swears. The last, and only, time that “fuck” appeared in a Sufjan Stevens song it was a defiant yelp, a repeated mantra . ”I’m not fucking around!” his reedy voice fires into the air after three minutes of Lego-block building, with a swirling, pulsing choir and fluttering flutes stacking on top of chaotic beats in ever-changing prime number time signatures. Five years later, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” lets fall a lone sigh of “Fuck me, I’m falling apart,” almost an aside, tumbling into the ocean of plaintive finger-picked guitar and the air conditioner on in the background – no longer crying to God out of the depths, but looking at everyone else who’s down there with him.

No Shade” arrives as the lead single from Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’s forthcoming album, which centers around the death of his mother. While his most recent non-Christmas release The Age of Adz dealt with his personal struggle with physical and mental health by creating a song-of-myself wonderland of bleeps, buzzes, bright colors and long symphonic suites, Carrie & Lowell strips away the layers of production to almost nothing. “I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make believe,” Stevens said. “It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate.” If this song is any indicator of what’s to come, it will be a wispily brutal and personal journey of faded snapshots like that of the album cover, glimpses through the poeticism into clarity, and curses that mean something besides punctuation. A parent’s death, an adult child’s grief, and the ever present razor wire fence of faith, all in dusty low fidelity.

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