Critic favorite Indie Pop singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens has released his seventh studio album this week, Carrie and Lowell. Stevens has been displaying his superior musical abilities, using haunting melodies and insightful lyrics for years since his first release Sun Came in 2000. Stevens has shapeshifted between pop, folk, electronica, lofi, and chamber pop over his six studio releases. He also has numerous collaborations with artists such as The National on his long list of credits. His music is singular in its ability to combine personal reflections with spiritual depth. Stevens freely draws from the Bible and other spiritual traditions reinterpreting the mystical elements into his music.
Stevens has been upfront explaining that Carrie and Lowell is about his mother and her death. The Lowell of the title is her ex husband Lowell Brams, currently manager of Steven’s record company Asthmatic Kitty Records. Sufjan recorded Carrie and Lowell mostly in his home studio in Brooklyn, New York. He was joined by Laura Viers, S. Carey and Thomas Bartlett to fill out the sound. Stevens produced the album, with Pat Dillet; Thomas Bartlett mixing and Chad Coplin, Jarod Evans, Brian Joseph and Tucker Martine engineering.
Much has been made in the press of Stevens’ Christian beliefs. Stevens has stated,”I think I’ve said things and sing about things that probably weren’t appropriate for this kind of format, and I just feel it is not my job or place to make claims and statements, because I think it gets misinterpreted…I am a Christian and I will continue to reflect on Christian and Mystical Themes in my work.”
Carrie and Lowell is again sufficed with Christian themes and symbolism. Stevens seems with this record to emphasize the point that daily life for a believer is an imperfect journey at best. Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you have all the answers, never doubt your faith or do not feel soul crushing pain. He seems to be emphasizing that believers are not perfect just forgiven and that in the end is the ultimate comfort.
The over arching theme of Carrie and Lowell is Steven’s mourning his mother and her untimely death in 2012 of stomach cancer. His mother Carrie suffered from bipolar schizophrenic and all the accompanying difficulties of alcohol and substance abuse. She had abandoned Stevens for the first time around the age of 1 giving him to his father to raise. She would step in and out of his life throughout his childhood years. The most stable time in their relationship would take place when Stevens was five and lasted until he was eight. During this time Carrie was married to Lowell Brams and Stevens would visit them in Oregon during the summer. The various locations the family visited during those summers are revisited on many of the songs on the album. Stevens had anything but an orthodox childhood. Where many an artist would have raged against or blamed their parents for a painful childhood, adult problems and indiscretions, he instead shows understanding and forgiveness for his mother’s shortcomings and faults. The album stands in testament to the time worn belief that no matter the damage parents intentionally or usually unintentionally inflict, children love their parents and are willing to rationalize a parent’s many imperfections.
Stevens has said making the record with its painful themes was something that was necessary for him to do in the wake of his mother’s death, in order to gain a sense of peace and serenity. The songs on Carrie and Lowell contain grief, fear, depression, seeking, and explorations of childhood, family loneliness, beauty, faith, melancholy and rebirth. It all sounds very glum and dudgeon filled, but the beauty of the music creates a balance. Each composition is unique and breathtaking in its beauty and pain.
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In these songs Sufjan takes on the personas of a modern Job or Pilgrim from Pilgrims Progress, as he tries to journey through tragedy and cope with the damage of his childhood. His is a childhood that taken in retrospect seemed filled with wasted opportunities and painful abandonment. The grief and yearning for his mother can almost overwhelm the listener with the sheer weight of emotion and the beauty of the songs. The production of the album is crystalline, pure and minimal. The music is performed to enhance the lyric but does not interfere as it is ghostly, soaring, inventive and fathomless in turn.
The album begins with Death with Dignity a poetic and earnest track. Conveying the figure of both his mother and himself lost on the path of life. It speaks to the beauty of life and the inevitably sad end of each life. Stevens forgives his mother for the things she could not help being. “I forgive you mother I can hear you and I long to be near you.” Their relationship in his opinion was far from perfect but it was their relationship to be treasured. The song has a lovely evocative acoustic guitar and Sufjan’s voice is compelling as his uses whispery vocals and falsetto. Should Have Known Better uses its minimalist sound to build the drama of the song. It is a song about desiring something you can not have. In Sufjan’s case the desire to have a sane and stable mother and an average childhood. “I should have known better but nothing can be changed the past is still the past the bridge to nowhere.” The image in the lyrics of the black shroud is used to represent regret, grief, reflections on the past, also his constant fear of the manifestations of his mother’s illness.
All of Me Wants All of You The song has a lofi folk feel and is haunting. This is one of the numerous songs on the record that refers to areas in Oregon that Stevens as a child visited with his mother. After his mother’s death he was compelled to go back and revisit many of these places. The song begins at her deathbed with a discussion of the fact that they were together again. He then switches over to the imagery of chasing his mother’s ghost. He veers between being disappointed with his mother and understanding she was flawed and a troubled individual who tried to do the best she could with a debilitating disease.
Drawn to the Blood is a song more in keeping with his work on Seven Swans. It has numerous Biblical references. He questions like many believers why bad things happen, particularly in the light of his all encompassing grief. “For my prayer has always been love, what did I do to deserve this?” Another strong image in the song is his mother as Delilah of the Old Testament, sapping his strength and faith, not by cutting his hair but in dying and going where he can no longer reach her on this earth. The song is ghostly and elegiac.
Eugene is a bittersweet song where he is reminiscing on the summers spent in Oregon. He looks back in hindsight to how ordinary and precious those visits were and how important they would become to him. “Since I was old enough to speak, I’ve said it with alarm… I just want to be near you… for the rest of my life admitting the best is behind me.” “Now I’m drunk and afraid wishing the world would go away, what is the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you.” In an album of “do not miss” songs, this one is a stand out. The honesty Stevens conveys in this song is heart rendering.
Fourth of July starts with a conversation real or imaginary between Sufjan and his mother in her hospital bed. She is trying to reassure him of her love and explain why she had to leave him during his childhood. She advises him to make the most of his life because time is short, “and we all die”. This solemn song is heartbreaking with its otherworldly atmospherics. She asks” did you get enough love my little dove?” Stevens conveys how she was the light of his world, his firefly, and star in the sky. In return she calls him her falcon, dove, loon and hawk. The song spells out all of his gut wrenching loss and the track is gripping and astonishing in its emotional grandeur.
On the The Only Thing Stevens takes us to his emotional nadir in dealing with the aftermath of Carrie’s death. He reveals he started to mimic her destructive behavior thinking it would give him understanding and relief, and he goes through a laundry list of the things he could do to end the pain. “Wonder did you love me at all… how do I live with your ghost?” The things that pull him through are the signs and wonders of life, and blind faith in God’s grace. There is also an undercurrent of possible oedipal allusions with the stanza, “Should I tear out my eyes now? Everything I see returns to you somehow, should I tear out my heart now? Every thing I feel returns to you.”
Carrie and Lowell is the title song of the album and the most traditionally poetic creation in the collection. It is a simply beautiful song, using mythological allusions to deftly portray Carrie’s struggles. The track is an elegy of beauty, joy, and pain retold in hindsight by an adult child recalling all the warts of his personal history with his mother.
On John My Beloved the lyrics oscillate between talking about a relationship with another person and his personal relationship with Christ as in his song To be Alone with You. Stevens throughout the song mentions that he is a damaged soul who can only be salvaged by love and belief. The song also examines the complicated relationships of parents, lovers, and God. He prays for the faith to understand the unfathomable mystery found in a terrestrial love or spiritual faith.
No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross is a poignant song where Stevens portrays himself as trying to run as far as he can from God using the distractions of the world to numb the pain he is feeling. None of it works and he ends up singing “Fuck me I am falling apart”. He also can’t find relief within the shallow axioms of fair-weather Christianity that would tell him to suppress his pain and ignore the grief. In the end he has to work through the grief and out the other side, being brought back to faith by the twitch upon the thread which Christ never allows to be cut for believers.
The final track, Blue Bucket of Gold uses the existence of the legendary “Blue Bucket Mine” site in Oregon as a symbol for his endless search for peace with his mother and their relationship. In the legend of Blue Bucket Mine, it was so full of riches you could fill buckets with golden treasure. He uses this imagery to allude to his mother and her being his illusive gold. He hoped to fill his bucket with her love but instead he is left searching because her death makes it impossible to find and be filled with her love. The album is brought to a close with an otherworldly chorus of voices.
Carrie and Lowell will make followers of Sufjan’s career feel like after all of the noteworthy prior albums, Stevens has cleared his throat and produced his definitive masterpiece. It is a heartbreaking and intimate look into the most painful events of his existence. The music is so pure it can be equated to his having burnt off the dross and produced pure gold. The album like an Elgar cello concerto cannot help but stir your emotions. Carrie and Lowell will haunt you and draw you back again and again to try and understand each rich emotional layer of the album. It is a moving journey through grief and loss, beautiful and melancholy. The songs shapeshift with each listen and drudge up additional meanings and phrases to appreciate. The simple but powerful accompaniment only enhances the emotional weight of each song. The album is certainly in the running for one of the best albums of 2015. Sufjan Stevens has a masterpiece on his hands, I cannot recommend it enough.