Sufjan Stevens Is Resurrected on Devastating “Should Have Known Better” (SONG REVIEW)

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“Should Have Known Better” is the second teaser from Stevens’ highly-anticpated Carrie & Lowell, and it’s safe to say the forthcoming LP is the kind of album Sufjan fans have been patiently waiting for. Never one to shy away from introspection, Stevens has billed Carrie & Lowell as his most personal album to date. Though, in truth, that may not be a fair assessment given that all of Stevens’ music (even the oddities such as Age of Adz and The BQE) is intently centered around Stevens’ personal comings and goings. Whether it’s his home state, his relationship with God and Christmas, or his electronic meditations on the future, his work is consistently personal. And, therefore, nothing is off-limits in Stevens’ songwriting.

“Should Have Known Better” is quietly destructive, though not as much as its predecessor, “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross.” The latter track gave us Stevens breaking down in abandonment (“Fuck me, I’m falling apart”) and looking for comfort in the arms of a savior. “Should Have Known Better” offers us the titular lament but also tacks off a list of other futile actions that are no longer relevant, given that the past has already run its course. Lyrically, we find Stevens as a child, wide-eyed and “free to explore” but also burdened by the weight of a mother who abandoned him (“She left us at that video store”). Details are tricky, and memory is forever hazy; we can only assume that Stevens is telling his story in earnest, though we’ll have to accept the single narrative of the song. We have no reason not, too, however; Stevens doesn’t appear interested in pulling our emotional strings for his benefit. After all, this is his life, not a perpetrated scheme to elicit sympathy.

“Should Have Known Better” stands up and walks us through a devastating path of isolation, loneliness, regret, and ultimately resurrection. The track is filled out to the five-minute mark, shifting from a few classic fingerpicked verses to a few minor keyboard embellishments. Yet, for all its simplicity, the song is large in a way that can’t quite be pinned down. Monumental shifts occur, most notably when Stevens sings, “My brother had a daughter / the beauty that she brings,” but even then such an observation carries an unheralded weight to it. All of this is to suggest that Carrie & Lowell may be impenetrable by the outside listener in the same way that Sun Kil Moon’s Benji was affectionately and disturbingly personal. “Should Have Known Better” is delicate and hopeful in the best way – but only if we can apply its messages beyond the song and onto our own experiences. Only then will it grow into what it surely can become.

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