Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell

Brutally honest and personal

Named after Sufjan’s mother and stepfather, and written in the wake of the death of his mother in 2012, who floated in and out of his life due to her battles with mental illness and addiction, Carrie and Lowell is an intensely personal album. Stevens’ past albums almost all had some kind of non-personal concept that they revolved around that had nothing to do with Stevens himself, and he would inject himself into them anyway. This is the man who said he was going to release a concept album about every state in America after releasing albums about Michigan and Illinois. This album, however, is all Sufjan Stevens, and he does not shy away from anything. He sings about his descent into alcohol and self-harm after his mother’s death. He sings about conversations with funeral directors. He sings, of course, about his mother. He also sings about his religion, but this should not be something to put you off. This is not religious music; this is music by and about someone who happens to be religious. Since the album is incredibly personal he chooses not to ignore this aspect of who he is. With how open and honest he is being with the music and the lyrics, it would be akin to lying if he didn’t talk about his faith at all.

The tone of the album is established in the opening song as Stevens sings with soft, breathy, vocals over a lightly plucked acoustic guitar, “I forgive you mother, I can hear you and I long to be near you”. This line contrasts the almost bitter double meaning of another line in the same verse, “You’ll never see us again”, referring both to her death and her absence from his life. Carrie and Lowell is ultimately a lyrical album. The instruments are sparse and there are no crescendos or massive movements in any direction. Songs occasionally open up into textural landscapes, but Stevens sticks mostly to an acoustic guitar and soft singing. Among the stand-out songs is ‘Eugene’, wherein Stevens sings one of the most touching lines on the album, directed at his mother: “what’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you”. Stevens struggles throughout the album with why he is writing the songs as a method of coping with the death, and admits on ‘Should Have Known Better’ that he never did grieve properly. A constant theme throughout the album is that while his mother may have walked out on him (“When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store”) he still loved her hugely and wanted her to be around, and wanted to be with her (“I just wanted to be near you”). It’s an incredibly sad album, and two songs in particular are heart-breaking in Stevens’ portrayal of his emotions. In ‘The Only Thing’ he sings, “I wonder did you love me at all” and shortly after also sings, “should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch”. Then, in ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ he sings, “fuck me, I’m falling apart”.

Carrie and Lowell is brutally honest and personal, to the point where sometimes as a listener we wonder if Stevens drew the line anywhere when he was writing the songs. It is a touching work, and probably Sufjan Stevens’ best album to date.

 

Standout Songs: Eugene, Fourth of July, John My Beloved

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