Album Review: Sufjan Stevens—“Carrie & Lowell”

By James Li

Read the lyrics to Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album, Carrie & Lowell, and you’ll find plenty of geographical, historical, and natural references to the state of Oregon, where the Michigan native spent part of his childhood: Eugene, The Dalles, Spencer’s Butte, Cottage Grove, Sea Lion Caves, the Tillamook Burn, Aaron’s-beard flowers, and the meadowlark, Oregon’s state bird. It’s tempting to view Carrie & Lowell as a lost chapter in Stevens’ abandoned “50 States” project, along with Michigan and Illinois. But a quick look at Illinois’ album cover and Carrie & Lowell’s spells out the difference. Illinois’ title is spelled out in a bright marquee sign, with Al Capone and Superman adorning the cover. Carrie & Lowell is more intimately presented. The cover is a family photograph of a woman wearing coke-bottle glasses and a man with a receding hairline: Stevens’ mother and stepfather, the namesakes of the album.

In fact, Carrie & Lowell, a stripped-down acoustic album, has less in common with Illinois or Michigan, more whimsical baroque pop projects, and draws more comparisons to Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, in which Mark Kozelek tied together stories from his childhood in Northeast Ohio with the stories of his dead relatives and friends. But here’s the key difference: Kozelek has a song called “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” but that’s exactly what Stevens had to do. In a candid interview with Pitchfork, Stevens talked about his mother, who left him at an early age, struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, and passed away from cancer in 2012.

Album art for Carrie & Lowell

Album art for Carrie & Lowell

Stevens doesn’t pull any punches lyrically, instead choosing to simply explore his feelings of abandonment, grief, and love from his relationship with his mother. In his Pitchfork interview, he said that he felt that he was predisposed to his mother’s self-destructive behaviours, which comes out in the new album. For example, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” contains thinly-veiled references to opiate addiction. “The Only Thing” refers to Stevens stopping a step short from self-harm and suicide. There’s a lot of sad sexual ambiguity on Carrie & Lowell too – “All of Me Wants All of You” has a line about masturbating, in case you had any doubts that this was an emotionally bare album.

At the same time, Carrie & Lowell is Stevens’ most Christian album since Seven Swans. It’s not evangelical, though. While many Biblical figures – Delilah, Elijah, John the Apostle – show up in the lyrics, Jesus is only mentioned once. And on Carrie & Lowell, Stevens writes a lot like Flannery O’Connor, another Christian artist who he’s paid tribute to before. O’Connor once wrote, “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” as if she knew this album would one day exist. Both O’Connor and Stevens take Christian themes – faith, doubt, grace, suffering, sin, and redemption – and present them in a way that resonates with secular audiences too. O’Connor writing was also deeply violent and grotesque, and on Carrie & Lowell, Stevens sings about vampires and ghosts, one-winged doves, cutting his own arm, being struck by lightning, and draping his mother’s body in cloth.

But O’Connor’s stories were also full of grace as well as violence, and Stevens doesn’t forget that either. Even as Stevens relives his painful memories, there are joyful and redemptive moments too. On “Eugene,” there’s a funny line about Lowell mispronouncing Sufjan’s name (“And he called me Subaru”); there’s a glimmer of hope on “Should Have Known Better” (“My brother had a daughter / The beauty she brings, illumination”); and forgiveness for the deceased on “Death with Dignity” (“I forgive you mother, I can hear you”). Even on the heartbreaking “Fourth of July,” where Stevens brings a deathbed conversation to life, he and his mother share affectionate names with each other (to Sufjan, Carrie is “my fading supply,” and to Carrie, Sufjan is “my little hawk”).

Like Seven Swans, Carrie & Lowell is restrained for a Sufjan Stevens album – there’s no glitchy experimentation like there is on The Age of Adz or sweeping baroque arrangements like on Michigan or Illinois. Many of the songs are based around Stevens’ trembling falsetto and fingerpicked guitar. Stevens sometimes uses the classic contrast between sad lyrics and happy music. “Death with Dignity” won’t be mistaken for a happy song anytime soon, but the guitar melody is kind of jaunty. “Carrie & Lowell” is more bittersweet, as Stevens balances the nostalgic fantasy of the lyrics with multi-tracked vocal harmonies.

Some of the tracks were recorded on an iPhone in a hotel room and others in Stevens’ home studio, which adds an intimate atmosphere, but it’s too cleanly recorded and fleshed-out to be lo-fi. The added details are nothing flashy – a synth line on “Should Have Known Better,” a bit of banjo on the title track, Laura Veirs’ gorgeous backing vocals on “John My Beloved,” and the breathtaking instrumental outros to “Drawn to the Blood” and “Blue Bucket of Gold.” It’s true that Carrie & Lowell isn’t Stevens’ most ambitious artistic statement – a 45-minute acoustic folk album is obviously going to be smaller in scope than a 70-minute album stuffed with lush orchestration or glitchy electronics. And, while Stevens’ talents as an arranger, multi-instrumentalist, or experimenter aren’t as apparent on Carrie & Lowell, his skills as a songwriter are clearer than ever.

Stevens created entire musical landscapes with Michigan and Illinois, but Carrie & Lowell isn’t a landscape. It’s a loving portrait of someone he didn’t get to know. The most important reference of all on the album might be on the closing track “Blue Bucket of Gold.” The song takes its title from the Blue Bucket Mine, Oregon’s fabled lost gold mine. Like a prospector searching for gold, Stevens spends his life trying to figure out whether his mother even loved him. We as listeners don’t get closure on Carrie & Lowell, but the diarylike detail in Stevens’ lyrics lets us look into his mother’s life and share in his grief. (Asthmatic Kitty)

Listen: “Should Have Known Better”

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