“What’s the point in singing songs, if they’ll never even hear you?”
“We’re all gonna die.”
“I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head. There’s only a shadow of me, in a matter of speaking, I’m dead.”
In early 2015 Sufjan Stevens released an album called Carrie & Lowell.
It was inspired by the death of his mother in 2012 and the frequent trips they would make to Oregon during his childhood.
It was met with an overwhelming response from listeners and critics alike.
Stevens was born in 1975 and was raised through most of his childhood by his father Rasjid and his stepmother Pat. Carrie, his biological mother, divorced Rasjid after seven years of marriage, leaving their four children with no guarantee that she would be involved in their futures. It was only through her re-marriage to Lowell Brams in the early 1980s that Carrie began a sort of fractured, distant relationship with her children.
These are the facts.
Earlier this week I read through some notes that I made on the album’s one year anniversary and found myself still identifying with many of the emotions it evoked back then.
It turns out Carrie & Lowell might be the best Sufjan Stevens album through which to explore the rest of his music. Although it arrived fifteen years into a rich and illustrious career it nonetheless serves as scaffolding around which much of Stevens’ ideas and themes can be contextualised.
Finding a comfortable entry point into Stevens’ music can often feel like a daunting task for anyone unfamiliar with such a singular back catalogue, and so, I’ve decided to re-evaluate those notes I made and put them into something that I hope will act like a guide book to the uninitiated.
If Stevens were a mainstream artist on a major label concerned with hits then Carrie & Lowell would’ve been marketed as a “return to form,” an album formulated to regain the lost fans who would’ve abandoned him in the five years since his attempt to try something radically out of step with the status quo. As it stands, Stevens is as about as mainstream as you can get for an artist on an independent label. Now more than fifteen years into his career, his music has progressed in leaps and bounds, confirming a position as a unique artist not just merely acclaimed but universally loved.
Until The Age of Adz (2010) Stevens’ music managed, rather uniquely, to resonate profoundly with a devoted audience on a personal level despite little of the subject matter relating to his personal life. Both Michigan (2003) and its now-classic successor Illinois (2005) are sprawling epics brimming with orchestral arrangements rooted in indie folk and baroque pop. Chaotic and magnificent in the way only constructed narratives concerning the history of the two States could be, they are also informative and educational, merging historical fact with an innovative patchwork of musical styles bolstered by Stevens’ talent for catchy melody and witty storytelling.
Alongside scrupulous cover art and lengthy song titles that bordered on the parodic, it was easy to see Stevens as a musician who had constructed a character with which to present himself to the listener. Yet behind the mask were confessional tales which alluded to his childhood and personal life. Rumours pertaining to his sexuality and faith never got in the way of an almost unparalleled level of communication with his fans; we respected his right to privacy and in turn he bestowed us with gifts both on and off stage.
By contrast, Carrie & Lowell is thin-skinned emotional nakedness on a scale rarely witnessed in popular music. There is nowhere for Stevens to hide, no historical figures he might stand behind, no personal truths cloaked in myth and subterfuge. Stevens knew this all too well — that were he to release an album about his relationship with his mother, it could only ever be a no-holds-barred account of his devastation and loss.
Virtually all of the promotional material and interviews in the run up to its release centre on the facts: that Stevens’ mother left him and his siblings when he was one year old, that she re-emerged for a few summers when he was still very young, and that she battled with alcoholism, depression and schizophrenia for decades.
Her death in 2012 affected him profoundly as — in his own words — he was “trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing.”
Stevens poured this sorrow into his work and the result is one of unending questions, uneasy answers and — ultimately — an attempt to reconcile the confusion into something more understandable than he could at the time.
Carrie & Lowell is a document of pain, a chronicle of the suffering that occurs through the unalterable transition into death and the spaces which cannot be easily filled by the loss incurred. That’s also made it something of a precious tool in the half decade since it was released — almost a device necessary for catharsis and healing, not just for Stevens but potentially the listener, too. Many have expressed their surprise at just how helpful this album has been for them in dealing with their own personal losses.
Stevens understands the necessity for communicable honesty with his audience — that it must be uncompromising in its transparency. Indeed, Carrie & Lowell is all the more beautiful for its sacredness. The mood that Stevens imbues on these eleven songs is a combination of sadness and bittersweet happiness, the fleeting childhood memories of his mother and otherwise minor anecdotes that spark a series of thoughts that come to define entire songs.
On Eugene, Stevens recalls summers spent in Oregon by recounting site-specific details only to conclude that the best is behind him. The title track flickers by like a film roll of childhood memories; joy and wonder soon to be replaced by the disappearance of his mother once again.
On Should Have Known Better (arguably the album’s best song), he admonishes himself for never truly being able to confront the complex emotions thrown up whilst his mother was still alive, describing them as a “black shroud” in the way of his feelings. Yet in the final two minutes he shrugs off that shroud and gathers the clarity to see wonder in the newness of living — namely the sacredness of his brother’s daughter’s innocence as something to cherish, and how the beauty of a newborn brings illumination to all those around her.
Carrie & Lowell is musically sparse, yet there’s never the feeling that it needs anything more to counter the emotional weight of the lyrics. That’s partly because the subject matter is so wholly encompassing and the music which encircles Stevens’ solitary figure can easily play the supporting role. Lyrics and vocals are most crucial here (they are defined by the subject first and the emotional response second) so any attempt to embellish the music would feel massively erroneous.
Yet of course the music is vital in how those emotions are expressed.
The ambience that loops in the final minute of Blue Bucket of Gold envelops like a hug, as though the music were arms wrapping lovingly around an almost hymnal refrain. John My Beloved is soundtracked by plodding percussion and a barely-formed piano motif. It comes to shadow the vocals as Stevens slow-waltzes through gorgeous lines; “I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head.” As it draws to a close the music rises ever so slightly, in anticipation of a climax that never arrives. Instead, Stevens draws a gentle breath as though he were overwhelmed by the struggle to deliver such lines that may have felt easier to write down.
Sequentially, Carrie & Lowell plays some tricks that only become apparent after many listens. Drawn to the Blood is relatively sparse for two thirds, a simple guitar riff and vocals struggling to reconcile the pain of a life lived and loved in faith (“What did I do to deserve this?”). The final third expands as the guitar and vocals drop off in wounded resignation, replaced by ambient noise flooding in, as though exposing an empty void left in the wake of loss. The previously-mentioned Eugene follows, but take this song out of the equation for a moment and the album would continue with Fourth of July where Drawn to the Blood left off. The washes of ambience that introduce Fourth of July are almost identical to the ones that conclude Drawn to the Blood, almost like they are one and the same. Both songs are very present in that they deal directly with Carrie’s passing; in this context Eugene can be seen as merely a flashback, perhaps an attempt to deflect the pain by reverting to memories.
It appears as though Stevens is expressing the idea that a wound must be opened fully in order to finally heal and Fourth of July burrows itself deeper than any other song here. Stevens’ vocals are up front and centre, as though he were whispering directly into your ear, the music almost muted beneath. With each passing verse we get closer to Carrie until the lyrics become a sort of dance between mother and son, a melange of words and thoughts that carry a conversation.
Stevens’ lyrics feel allegorical in nature, but they reach a peak where he cries, “Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light.” We’re not sure if the words are coming from Stevens in the here and now, or if they were once uttered by Carrie. It’s somehow inconsequential; the advice transcends all logic and hits right between the eyes with an urgency that somehow contextualises the entire record. And yet the real strength of Carrie & Lowell lies in its author’s willingness to forgive and make amends. Death With Dignity opens the album and reveals a sort of witness statement for the road ahead: “I forgive you mother, I can hear you and I long to be near you.” It signals that this isn’t music rooted in anger.
Rather, Stevens documents by investigating his pain in an almost relentless and scientific fashion, holding a magnifying glass to his memories and assessing the evidence to arrive at answers that have eluded him. For Stevens, the making of Carrie & Lowell was hopefully enough to provide closure. That he was able to transmute his situation into the beautiful sounds that formed the record means that he’s achieved an almost impossible feat for an artist making music in the millennial age. It is by no means a musically innovative record, nor is it complex and intricate in the way many of his earlier albums are.
For that reason alone I found it easy to digest upon first listen. Each subsequent listen only anchored my appreciation for it further and in its own way it emerges as a completely innovative record. Records like Carrie & Lowell simply don’t come along very often, certainly not ones which collectively stop people in their tracks. It will be interesting to see just how much more significance it accumulates over the coming decade with its status as a modern classic already secure.