Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell'
Grief guides Sufjan Stevens' muse on "Carrie & Lowell." It's a remarkably wrenching release from the indie darling. "The evil it spread like a fever ahead / It was night when you died, my firefly," a solemn Stevens laments, conjuring a place of peace and rest, and then delivering this stark reality like an afterthought: "We're all gonna die." A heartbreaking back-and-forth between Sufjan and his late mother, who died shortly after a surprise stomach cancer diagnosis, the song's simple piano progression enkindles a contrasting calmness to the intensity of this final exchange – a reconciliation of the past, the harsh truth of the future – that floats hypnotically, like a wind-blown feather making its final descent. His portrayal of the inevitable is tragically beautiful, and it's also uncharacteristically direct, a noticeable switch for the press-shy, cryptically-prone Stevens. "Carrie & Lowell" is a memoir, capturing a life-changing tragedy with aching frankness and conveying it in its rawest guitar-rendered form. His despondency on the dreamy "Should Have Known Better," which acknowledges the trauma of being abandoned by his mother at "3, maybe 4," is spiked with hope – the promise of a new niece, a ray of light that cuts through the song's otherwise sullen sensibility. It evokes the cyclical nature of humanity so beautifully, and in just five minutes. Stevens also lets in some light on "Drawn to the Blood," his call to a spiritual guide eventually ebbing into a lush, orchestral reprieve. Grief, in all its emotional complexities, has rarely been as fully embodied as it is on the compelling "Carrie & Lowell," a work rich in the reality of human nature, from life to death to life again. Grade: A-
Sufjan Stevens performs at 8 p.m. April 27 at the Masonic Temple. For more information, visit http://www.themasonic.com.
Reba McEntire, 'Love Somebody'
Suffering through a recent breakup? Regretting a hookup? Reba's got you covered. The country diva sifts through a songwriting minefield of good ol'-fashioned country woe, worship and wine-drinking for "Love Somebody," the icon's first album in five years. And queens, brace yourselves: the rock-infused "Going Out Like That" is more fierce than an episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race." Taking aim at a mystified man, Reba lets him know what's up… and it's not what he expects. "He thought she'd be sitting home crying / she ain't going out like that," vows Reba, being all badass. The country queen's emotional plate is full on "Love Somebody," as she takes on impulsive rebound sex (the devastating Brandy Clark-written "She Got Drunk Last Night"), beating the odds (the sniffle-inducing "Love Land") and mortality ("Just Like Them Horses"). Inspired to record the ballad after it was played at her father's funeral, the latter is a hug from the heavens, and Reba sounds absolutely divine. She brings it on "Enough" as well. A duet with Jennifer Nettles, the powerhouse twosome touch the sky as they exchange lines about a two-timin', no-good cheat. Elsewhere, she's pledging her staying power (the growler "Livin' Ain't Killed Me Yet"), or re-envisioning "We Are the World" as "Pray for Peace," a rally call buoyed by an inspiring Celtic lift. Certainly Reba's genre-jumping is targeting anyone who's ever heard a Reba song, and why shouldn't it? For the most part, the more Rebas, the better. Grade: B
Estelle, 'True Romance'
Estelle's been virtually hit-less since dropping "American Boy" in our laps, and with it, fueling our desire to hear more of her swaggering, Lauryn Hill-inspired R&B. "True Romance," though, won't do much to put her back on top. With a twinkly string intro, "Conqueror" takes off at the chorus, soaring to anthemic heights with its sky-shattering sound. It's listenable but derivative, a recurrent issue on "True Romance." Take the '90s house-influenced "Something Good / Devotion," during which Estelle turns up the disco heat (think Crystal Waters). The track is fine. It's filled with nostalgia. It's also only temporarily intoxicating. On the whole, the album suffers the same sorry fate.
Kendrick Lamar, 'To Pimp a Butterfly'
Kendrick Lamar's bringing the funk… and the spoken word, and the hip-hop, and the jazz. On "To Pimp a Butterfly," the Cali-born hotshot pulls from his multifaceted influences as he grapples with heavy of-the-zeitgeist matters, particularly heightened violence against blacks. "King Kunta" grooves a wonky female-assisted sound, and hope appears in the form of "Mortal Men," a moving 12-minute, posthumous conversation with Tupac. This is a powerful and empowering opus. An urban gospel, even. It's uncomfortable and challenging and, like the words from Lamar's mouth to our ears, tremendously important.