Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (Mar. 31st, 2015)
When Illinois came out in 2005, I became obsessed with Sufjan Stevens. I didn’t know how to properly pronounce his first name, and I was only vaguely aware of his earlier work that was heavy in Christian religious imagery, but Illinois’ Steve Reich-ian orchestration of horns, strings, and voices alongside folk instrumentation grabbed my budding musical ear. Yet it was his personal, touching lyrics - sung largely in a soft whisper - that wormed their way to the center of my heart.
Years passed. Stevens put out some B-sides, some singles, a couple of Christmas albums, and a more experimental full-length, The Age of Adz, where he dabbled in electronica and said the F-word (gasp!). In short, Stevens largely retreated from the spotlight that shone so brightly on him ten years ago, and he fell from my - and the public’s - consciousness.
It was surprising to me then when Stevens returned this year with perhaps his most striking and personal album yet, Carrie & Lowell. Named after his stepfather and late mother, it is a devastating meditation on death, longing, and regret set to astonishingly beautiful neo-Americana arrangements.
Throughout the record - and in interviews he’s given - we learn that Stevens had a complicated relationship with his mother, to put it lightly. She suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and had substance abuse problems. Ultimately, she ended up abandoning her family when Stevens was 1. With minimal contact between them since that point and her death in 2012, Carrie & Lowell is the manifestation of the anger, regret, and grief that remained from their troubled relationship.
Almost all the lyrics are directed at his mother: remembered glimpses from childhood, still-burning anger, the scene of her death at a hospital, and even contemplations of suicide. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of all this is his own realization that the emotional outpouring toward his mother is pointless. “Now I’m drunk and afraid / Wishing the world would go away / What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?” Stevens laments. “I just want to be near you,” he pleads on the track “Eugene.”
Musically, much of the album consists only of fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Stevens’ soft vocals. He often shifts to a breathy falsetto at the end of a phrase, and it’s always a startlingly beautiful gut punch. His tendency toward complex arrangements is minimized here compared to his earlier work. Instead of bombastic horns and strings, he sparingly layers in electric piano, harmonized vocals, and pedal steel guitar. The starkness of the arrangements and absence of drums adds to the haunting mise en scene, completely devoid of catharsis. “How do I live with your ghost?” Stevens whispers on “The Only Thing.”
There’s a lot to unpack here and easy listening this is not. Is it essential listening to appreciate some of the best of 2015’s music? Absolutely.
Tell your mom you love her, and check out Carrie & Lowell today.
Sufjan Stevens’ discography available at the library:
Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001)
Seven Swans (2004)
The Avalanche (2006)
Songs for Christmas (2006)
The Age of Adz (2010)