Sufjan Stevens Delivers Emotional Tour De Force With ‘Carrie & Lowell’
Indie Singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens delivers an emotional, personal tour de force with Carrie & Lowell
Tackling grief is a tough task. Many artists aren’t brave enough to share personal, life-altering events musically. This isn’t the case for indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Stevens delivers a truly chilling album about his mother’s death, his relationship with her, and his relationship with his stepfather, Lowell.
Carrie & Lowell instantly recollects Lost In The Trees’ 2012 album A Church That Fits Our Needs. Frontman Ari Picker made his late mother the centerpiece of that LP. Similarly, Stevens invites listeners into raw emotions, creating a moving listening experience.
Stevens returns to more folk-oriented music on Carrie & Lowell. “Death With Dignity” is best characterized by its subtlety and restraint. This clearly contrasts the lushly orchestrated Age Of Adz (2010). Despite less elaborately arranging, “Death With Dignity” has a similar effect to that bombastic effort thanks to its songwriting. The most chilling lyric appears near the end. Stevens sings,
“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / and I long to be near you.”
“Should Have Known Better” maintains softer dynamics. Stevens continues to embrace restraint, speaking about his past. Specifically, he references his mother’s exit from his life as a child and in death. The end of the track breaks from the expected with electronic cues, increased rhythm and louder dynamics.
“All of Me Wants All of You”
“All Of Me Wants All Of You” maintains consistency, delivering head-turning lyric,
“You checked your texts while I masturbated.”
Ultimately, it’s another emotional reaction from Stevens in regard to the relationship with his mom. The relationship is filled with strain, distance, and lack of closeness.
“For my prayer has always been love,” Stevens sings on “Drawn To The Blood.” “What did I do to deserve this?” Idiomatic of indie music, “Drawn To The Blood” is chocked full of a number Biblical references. Stevens paints a portrait of sinfulness and imperfection. Brevity aside, “Drawn To The Blood” packs a mighty punch.
“Eugene” adds another piece to Carrie & Lowell – Lowell, his stepfather. Stevens speaks kindly of Lowell:
“The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name / like a father he led community water on my head.”
Still, he returns back to his mother, singing, “I just want to be near you,” and “Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away.” The latter quote references his delicate emotional state, given his childhood and mother’s passing.
Clever references highlight “Fourth Of July.” Among them is the idea of fire with “Tillamook burn” and “the Fourth of July,” as well as the morbid truth, “We’re all gonna die.” Most unique are the sweet, endearing names that mom and son address each other with. This shows a deeper bond previously unrevealed on Carrie & Lowell.
“The Only Thing” is among the most unsettling listens of the effort. There is a suicidal element, as the grief has overwhelmed Stevens. “Do I care if I survive this?” he asks, suggesting atonement for his grief is potentially his own death.
“Carrie & Lowell”
“Carrie & Lowell” continues to paint dark imagery. The title track references Greek mythology (Erebus), Henry Purcell’s Baroque Opera Dido and Aeneas (“When I Am Laid In The Earth”), and Eugene, Oregon. The portion of the song referencing the covered bridge is particularly chilling, suggesting death:
“Under the pear tree / shadows and light conspiring / covered bridge, I scream…”
“Carrie & Lowell” is among the best if for no other reason than Stevens’ poetic, mysterious, and confounding songwriting.
The heaviest line of the somber “John My Beloved” recurs through the record:
“There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead.”
“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Heaviness continues on the penultimate, autobiographical standout, “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross.” “I slept on my back in the shade of the meadowlark / like a champion,” Stevens sings. He continues, asserting,
“Get drunk to get laid / I take one more hit when you depart.”
In other words, his mother’s death has caused him to become rebellious, question Christianity, and morality. This is most apparent as Stevens sings, “There’s blood on that blade / fuck me, I’m falling apart.”
“Blue Bucket Of Gold” concludes, once more referencing Biblical things. Notably, lyric “Raise your right hand” has a great amount of symbolism. Another lyrical highlight, “Lord, touch me with lightening,” suggests the reaffirmation of faith. Given the verse the excerpted quote hails – “Search for things to extol / friend, the fables delight me…” – Stevens seems to be rebounding. Specifically, Stevens is rebounding from shallower things – rebelliousness and mythology – in favor of embracing ‘real life.’
Sufjan Stevens has constructed a beautiful album that expresses how he coped with grief in his life. Openness and honesty gives Carrie & Lowell the authenticity that many albums lack. After listening, we gain insight into Stevens’ emotional state. More importantly, we gain insight into the process of how someone deals and expresses sadness and overwhelming grief. Carrie & Lowell ranks among the best of albums of 2015 without question.
Gems: “Death With Dignity,” “All Of Me Wants All Of You,” “Carrie & Lowell” & “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”