Some albums turn so far inward that you almost feel guilty when you hear them. It’s akin to eavesdropping on the artist’s inner thoughts and memories. Plenty come to mind: John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” Mickey Newbury’s “Looks Like Rain,” and Peggy Lee’s “Norma Deloris Egstrom From Jamestown, North Dakota.” Add to that any number of records by Elliott Smith, Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, and so on.
They belong to the canon of confessional pop music, little windows into a scene we weren’t supposed to see but are glad we did. Sufjan Stevens’s latest work is in that tradition. Out on Tuesday, “Carrie & Lowell” is an elegy to loss and grief and the ways we process and move beyond both. In 2012, the singer-songwriter lost his mother, Carrie, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, and her passing sent Stevens into an emotional but also creative upheaval.
The album is about forgiveness and familial bonds. Carrie left Stevens’s father and their children while he was still a baby and got remarried to a man named Lowell, who would end up being a pillar of support in the artist’s life.
Stevens is celebrated for the scope of his projects, from two ambitious albums about US states to a mixed-media exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Along the way he has peppered his discography with festive Christmas albums and a foray into electronic textures on 2010’s “The Age of Adz.”
His new album is a return to narrative storytelling that’s less concerned with grandeur than with intimacy. Indeed, the liner notes indicate some tracks were “recorded on an iPhone in a hotel room.” The music on its own — fleshed out by kindred spirits including Thomas Bartlett, Laura Veirs, and Sean Carey, among others — pricks up the ears, glowing with guitars submerged in celestial effects until the occasional solo pierces the quietude. (I would gladly listen to an instrumental version of “Carrie & Lowell.”)
As it stands, Stevens’s words drive these songs, and not always in the most linear fashion. Lyrics that meander in unruly metric on the page are parsed into eloquent couplets that, somehow, sound conversational. “Signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark / Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart,” he sings on “The Only Thing.” And it works.
Other times Stevens is less obtuse, hitting you square in the head and heart, as he does with sublime directness on “All of Me Wants All of You”:
On the sheet I see your horizon
All of me pressed onto you
But in this light you look like Poseidon
I’m just a ghost you walk right through
The way the words wrap around the music and his voice is so beautiful it nearly hurts. (It may or may not have made a grown man get teary-eyed on the subway.)
More than any other song, “Fourth of July” drills to the core of what makes “Carrie & Lowell” such a devastating listen. “It was night when you died, my firefly / What could I have said to raise you from the dead? / Oh, could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?” he sings, presumably about his mother’s passing. Sprinkled with tender pet names — “my little hawk,” “my little loon” — the verses culminate in a sobering about-face: “We’re all gonna die.”
Those are four simple words that carry not only the weight of this album, but of the whole world. It’s astonishing to hear them in a song, but as Stevens sings on “Eugene: “What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?” (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “All of Me Wants All of You”
Sufjan Stevens performs at the Citi Wang Theatre on May 4.James Reed can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.