The somber, ambient-folk nuance of the album Carrie & Lowell earned a new gaggle of Sufjan Stevens fans in 2015.
Tracks like "Drawn To The Blood" and "No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross" found the singer processing his sexuality in light of religious and societal pressure and carried with them a solemn introspection. Then came Planetarium, his 2017 follow-up collaboration with James McAlister, Bryce Dessner, and Nico Muhly: an expansive, be it at times lethargic, odyssey of a project that retained none of Carrie & Lowell's signature angst. Steven's contribution to the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack recaptured the haunting aesthetic of his 2015 masterpiece with "Visions of Gideon," but his other two offerings, (one of which was an Age of Adz remaster) rang hollow, with "Mystery of Love" in particular caving under the weight of its cliche narrative. "The rhymes are too neat, the phrasing is too precious...and Stevens' coo is so honeyed, it's cloying," wrote Pitchfork of the song. By now, Carrie & Lowell feels almost like a distant memory, and it feels impossible for Sufjan Stevens to get close again.
In honor of pride month, Sufjan Stevens announced his return with two new songs, "Love Yourself" and "With My Whole Heart," both atmospheric and synth-infused in their own right, but far more grounded than his work on Planetarium. The latter is especially optimistic for a Stevens track, with the singer crafting it as a personal challenge "to write an upbeat and sincere love song without conflict, anxiety or self-deprecation." The track ultimately succeeds and is a welcome departure from the singer's usual, heavy-handed angst. "Love Yourself," which is allegedly based off of a "sketch" that Stevens wrote 20 years ago, is more of a slow-burn, and while the melody is enjoyable, the singer's opaque lyrics leave much to be desired: "Make a shelf, put all the things on, that you believe in," he sings.
Regardless, it is nice to hear the hushed echo of Sufjan Stevens again, and while the two new tracks may still not satisfy Carrie & Lowell fanatics, the tracks paint a clearer picture of who Sufjan Stevens is becoming: a fluid artist whose boundless emotional spectrum has led listeners to question everything from their own sexuality to humanity's place in the universe. A portion of the new EP's proceeds will benefit the Ali Forney Center and the Ruth Ellis Center, both of which fight to end homophobia and child abuse. Ultimately, these new tracks showcase Sufjan Stevens as an evergreen artist who's always believed that his art is part of a higher calling.