Review: Sufjan Stevens Delivers An Emotional Tour De Force With ‘Carrie & Lowell’


Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell © Asthmatic Kitty

Sufjan Stevens • Carrie & Lowell • Asthmatic Kitty • US Release Date: March 31, 2015

Tackling grief and its effects personally is a tough task. Many artists aren’t brave enough to share something so personal and life altering in their music. That is not the case for indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, who 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 – where front man Ari Picker’s late mother was the centerpiece of the effort. Similarly, Sufjan Steven allows the listener into his raw emotions, making for a truly superb, moving listening experience.

From the start of Carrie & Lowell, it is obvious that Stevens has returned to more folk-oriented music. “Death With Dignity” is best characterized by its subtlety and restraint, something that couldn’t be said of the lushly orchestrated Age Of Adz from 2010. Despite being less elaborately arranged, “Death With Dignity” has a similar effect to that bombastic effort thanks to the weight of its songwriting. The most chilling, notable lyric of “Death With Dignity” appears near the end as Stevens sings, “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / and I long to be near you.”

“Should Have Known Better” generally keeps the dynamics on the softer side of Carrie & Lowell with Stevens continue to embrace restraint, speaking upon his past, specifically his mother’s exit from his life both as a child and in death. The last part of the track does break from the expected with dashes of electronic music added, increased rhythm, and a bump in volume.

“All Of Me Wants All Of You” maintains consistency and delivers one truly head-turning lyric, particularly given the fact it is Sufjan Stevens: “You checked your texts while I masturbated.” Ultimately, it’s another emotional reaction from Stevens in regard to the relationship/lack thereof he’s had with his mother – one filled with strain, distance, and lack of closeness.

“For my prayer has always been love,” Stevens sings on “Drawn To The Blood,” finishing the line singing, “What did I do to deserve this?” Much like the majority of indie music or the work singer/songwriters, “Drawn To The Blood” is chocked full of a number references that suggest the Biblical, sinful and imperfect, and part of Stevens’ personal life. To be such a brief song, “Drawn To The Blood” packs a mighty punch.

“Eugene” adds another piece to Carrie & Lowell – Lowell, his stepfather. He speaks kindly of Lowell, evidenced by lyrics such as “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 as he sings “I just want to be near you,” and “Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away,” referencing his delicate emotional state given his childhood and Carrie’s death.

A couple of clever references standout in “Fourth Of July” – the idea of fire with “Tillamook burn” and “the Fourth of July” as well as the morbid truth, “We’re all gonna die.” Maybe most unique about “Fourth Of July” is how Sufjan and his mother seem to be calling each others sweet, endearing names, hence showing a deeper bond that hadn’t come full circle on Carrie & Lowell.

“The Only Thing” is among the most unsettling listens of the effort, given Stevens’ heightened depressed state. There is a suicidal element, as the grief of loss has truly overwhelmed him. “Do I care if I survive this?” he asks at one point, suggesting he can atone for his grief through his own death (or near-death).

Title track “Carrie & Lowell” continues to paint dark imagery, referencing Greek mythology (Erabus), Henry Purcell’s Baroque Opera Dido and Aeneas (“When I Am Laid In The Earth”), and specific references to Eugene, Oregon including covered bridges. The portion of the song referencing the covered bridge is particularly chilling, definitely suggesting death or minimally enigma: “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 at times 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.” The heaviness continues on p standout penultimate record “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross,” among the most autobiographical. “I slept on my back in the shade of the meadowlark / like a champion,” he sings, “Get drunk to get laid / I take one more hit when you depart.” In other words, Stevens’ mother’s death has caused him to become rebellious, question his Christianity, and overall morality. This may be most apparent as Stevens sings, “There’s blood on that blade / fuck me, I’m falling apart.”

“Blue Bucket Of Gold” concludes Carrie & Lowell, and expectedly, it continues references to Biblical things. Notably, “Raise your right hand” has a great amount of symbolism, while “Lord, touch me with lightening” seems to suggest possible reaffirmation of his faith despite trials and tribulation. It is arguable Stevens suggests something else, but given the verse from which it hails (“Search for things to extol / friend, the fables delight me…”), it seems that Stevens is trying to rebound from shallower things like his rebelliousness and his affinity for mythology as opposed to embracing ‘real life.’

Ultimately, Sufjan Stevens has constructed a beautiful album that expresses how he coped with grief in his life. The openness and honesty presented on Carrie & Lowell gives it an authenticity that so many albums lack. After listening, the listener gains a detailed portrait of Stevens’ emotional state but more importantly, how someone deals and expresses sadness and overwhelming grief. Carrie & Lowell easily ranks among the best of albums of 2015.

Favorites: “Death With Dignity,” “All Of Me Wants All Of You,” “Carrie & Lowell,” and “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”

★★★★½

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