Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Death and loss aren’t necessarily new or ground-breaking themes within music. Death has been something that’s been sang about since the dawn of vocal music and the idea of loss is a recurring narrative within genres such as the Blues. They’re also two concepts that human beings encounter over several points of their lives and, death specifically, is something that we can all agree is something that carries significant heartache and sorrow to each of us when we come across it in our lifetimes.

Sufjan Stevens is a bit of a musical chameleon; he has released everything from Folk to Hip-Hop to impenetrable Electronic albums to Orchestral tributes to a train route in New York to Christmas albums. Despite his unwillingness to stand still in a genre for more than one album at a time, he has retained the reputation of being one of the truly great songwriters of his generation. His last major release was the schizophrenic and deeply intriguing “Age of Adz” which was, to put it mildly, a bombastic anxiety-ridden journey into the mind of Sufjan (who had just recovered from a mysterious debilitating illness). After a few sporadic releases, a new album was announced at the start of this year which was to serve as a tribute to his mother and step-father; Carrie and Lowell.

The story of Carrie Stevens is one of tragedy. She left the family when Sufjan was just a year old and lived a life that was marred by depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism, reappearing sporadically at random points in time before disappearing again. According to Sufjan’s recent interview with Pitchfork, she also spent several years on the street, homeless and alone. On the flip side, he also notes that she was funny, caring and loving according to relatives and from his distant memories. Carrie died in 2012 and before her passing, she and Sufjan spent time together. As a result of enduring the experience of witnessing the death of his mother, who was effectively a stranger to him, the concept of this album came into fruition.

Carrie and Lowell is the polar opposite of Age of Adz as it’s considerably more minimal in its sound. There is less emphasis on experimentation with sounds and more focus on gorgeous acoustic orchestrations to provide the genuinely heartbreaking lyrics with centre stage. It’s a platform for Sufjan to relay some of his finest and most personal songs of his career with the album serving as his grieving process (which isn’t specifically embedded in just sadness).

The opening track “Death With Dignity” is so beautifully arranged, with finger picked guitar and simple piano. It feels somewhat sparse, with its lyrics centred around the feeling of emptiness we can feel when someone dies and that lack of knowing where things will get better. It’s a taste of what’s to come with complex and gut-wrenching verses.

I forgive you, mother, I can hear you
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end

That feeling of emptiness and regret are further conveyed on “Should’ve Known Better”. Sufjan divulges further into the relationship (or lack thereof) with his mother and the inescapable feeling of wishing you had done more for a person before it’s too late. Whilst it’s possible to dwell on these feelings of regret forevermore, we can’t change what has been done and must live with our prior decisions.

I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling

A key theme throughout Sufjan Stevens albums and songs is faith and religion, most overtly in his stunning folk album “Seven Swans” (which, by the way, shows that it is possible to make Christian music that’s popular with the masses). On “Drawn to the Blood“, Sufjan questions just why such a personal tragedy could happen to him despite his strong faith in a higher power (“For my prayer has always been love, What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?”). It’s a really effective track where the sense of betrayal is evident and that temporary questioning of his faith feels so real. This is also something that isn’t something we’d typically see in his earlier works and is a sign that this is a far more personal and “real” album in comparison to his earlier releases.

The one song that truly broke my heart on the album is “The Fourth of July” which documents a conversation with someone in their final moments of life. Having lost family members, it’s in some ways that final conversation I would’ve wanted as it offers at least some form of comforting or closure during such a tragic moment. One of the more crushing lyrics is when Sufjan’s mother (who is essentially our narrator on the track) is apologetic for leaving her son at such an early age.

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

This song in particular resonated with me mainly because of just of lines like that. It’s simple and effective lyricism over such sparse instrumentation that convey the utter emptiness of the situation that make it just that little bit touching. It’s probably his most emotional song since “Casimir Pulaski Day

Considering how frantic his previous album was, the minimal soundscapes and prolonged instrumental outros that appear on a few songs are really effective. Take for example “Drawn to the Blood” which has over a minute of melancholic synths and string arrangements which allows the power of the lyrics to sink in. The same can be said of the title track which has a minute long solemn outro. It’s something you rarely see in a lot of music which is a real shame as it certainly adds depth if used.

There’s little resolution or hope provided on the climactic song “Blue Bucket of Gold” as it raises more questions than answers. Nobody fills that void following the loss of his mother and there’s no sign of anything good coming in the future. This understated track is the complete opposite of the 25 minute grandiose “Impossible Soul” which concluded The Age of Adz. The lyrics drift away in a sea of instrumentals and we’re left pondering our own thoughts and feelings on loss with no conclusion really being given to us.

I’ve been listening to this album for a few weeks and whilst it touched a nerve with me from the first listen, it struck me a little harder recently. I awoke last weekend to hear some particularly horrible news that had happened to a friend of mine from way back when. When I revisited this album again after hearing this, the songs hit me like a punch to the stomach as they perfectly encapsulate those cycle of emotions you go through when you lose someone you love.

Carrie & Lowell is a remarkable album. You very rarely get such an insight into an individual’s personal life that you get on this album and even when you do, it’s rarely as beautiful and tragic as this. Whilst the themes of death and loss aren’t new, such a well documented and crafted journey into the concept of death and the grieving process is worthy of praise. As a result of such a personal tragedy, Sufjan Stevens has released the finest album of his career to date, and has immortalised his mother with such a touching tribute.

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