Review Summary: Minimal and agonizingly personal, Sufjan Stevens strips his sound down to the bare essentials to create one of his best works yet.
It’s difficult for me write about this album. I don’t pretend to be a Sufjan Stevens fan and I certainly haven’t followed his material as loyally as some of his fan base has. Out of all his albums, I believe I can name only two (Illinois
and Seven Swans
). So my knowledge of Stevens and his back catalog is lacking and while I have a general gist of the history of his life as an artist, don’t try putting me through a test to see how much I know about his music… I’d certainly fail.
That being said, there’s no denying that Carrie & Lowell
is something special. It forces the listener to hear what it has to say, demanding your undivided attention. Not through aggression or masterful works of complexity, but through the sheer weight of emotion.
Carrie & Lowell
is a highly emotional album. Personal ballads about Stevens’ upbringing, seeking of religious solace, and the reconciliation he had with the relationship of his mother, even at the expense of his mental health, are brought up multiple times on the album. At times it can feel like the listener is almost a third wheel; an acquaintance sitting a room between two best friends sharing and confessing their deepest, darkest regrets together, the only thing you can do is stand to the side, slowly nodding your head in feigned understanding.
It’d be a sin to try to psychoanalyze the relationship between Stevens and his mother though Carrie & Lowell
alone: various interviews and conversations explain the situation of their relationship clearly enough as flawed, distant, and stressed. The album simply becomes a conduit towards Stevens’ feelings on the matter; and the subject isn’t simply brought up sparingly, it’s the entire crux of the album. It would certainly be reason enough to explain the minimalistic vulnerability that the album has. The very first track on the album “Death with Dignity” paints a clear picture as Stevens softy proclaims “I forgive you mother, I can hear you and I want to be near you. But every road leads to an end.” The album itself is blunt in conveying its message and this is a welcome breath of fresh air, side stepping any complex message that might obscure what Stevens is trying to say. Everything is laid out bare for everyone to see.
The variation felt on Carrie & Lowell
is admittedly minute yet subtle. Raw tape recordings where outside elements such as the buzzing of cars and the hum of air conditioning can be heard in the background (“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”), to multilayered vocal/electronic harmonizing over a simple acoustic guitar (“Should Have Known Better”) harken back to 90s lo-fi indie and sees Sufjan Stevens channeling his inner-Elliott Smith; hell, “Drawn to the Blood” is a near copy/paste of “Needle in the Hay”, Stevens’ spidery whispered vocals singing “How? God of Elijah, how?” over hushed guitar chords that channel Smith’s vocal delivery to a tee. While this approach has been done by Stevens before in his Seven Swans
album, there’s a distinct stripped minimalism that lends a heavy sense of personality towards the listen that sometimes lacked in the near concept album that Seven Swans
No, this isn’t Stevens at his darkest: it’s him at his most vulnerable. Vulnerability is a trait highly overlooked in today’s music industry yet still one of the most powerful conveyors of emotion that an artist can possess. It’s what made artists like Nick Drake and Mark Linkous so highly beloved in their tragically short careers and it radiates in spades on Carrie & Lowell
. A welcome return to form, stripping down all the glitz and glamour to reveal that ultimately Sufjan still wars with his emotions like the rest of us.