Review Summary: Sufjan's most personal and bare album is also easily his best.
A little under a week ago, I prematurely announced on my personal social media pages that Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly" was so monumental, it made the rest of music in 2015 essentially irrelevant. You could forgive such confusion when possibly the most monumental album of the current decade is released and what's possibly the best album of the current decade is released, and they're not quite the same album. Now such a string of hyperbolic proclamations may not be fitting for an objective review, but they were fitting for my casual reaction to both "To Pimp a Butterfly" and "Carrie and Lowell". And however odd it is to connect both albums in such a way, it's not such a terrible connection. Leaving aside the album's release dates, both albums follow their narrators emotional trajectory both into and out of depression, leaving the listener the task to confront with exactly what the narrator had become. For Lamar, that transformation is a public affair, loud, boisterous, challenging and celebratory, becoming a reflection of society and a critique of it. Sufjan's album on the other hand hardly even aspires to travel outside its cottage door. That's perhaps the major difference between the two albums.
And probably why Sufjan left the internal debate as the better of the two.
The most brilliant line, I think, in the album is the masturbation line. Coming within the first 30 seconds of the third track, before it even has a chance of becoming background noise, Sufjan in a sigh just point-blank admits, "you checked your texts while I masturbated," and in a second it becomes clear just how intimate this album has suddenly become. In the tracks before Sufjan has already admitted to suicidal idealization and a heavy negating depression, but there's nothing quite like the declaration that all is going to be spilled liked taking your dick out of your pants in an album about your mother. Every friend I had listen to the album often snickered, and then their eyes would usually glaze over, as they begin that there was no humorous intent in the line. Rather an admission of fragility and even pathetic-ness. In past work Sufjan has either been asexual, or the most timid kind of homo-erotic. This oedipal admission is such a bold intimate admission, that the album seems to transform immediately after its mention.
I suppose in most albums such an uncomfortable thing would throw things awry, but Sufjan's music is so tender and personable here that as surprising as it is , it's almost expected. The album, as portrayed by Sufjan's most recent article in Pitchfork (read it and read it now), is about his relationship with his schizophrenic mother Carrie who left him when he was a young boy and only came back into his life periodically until she died in 2012. The album could be seen as Sufjan's traditional break-up album, but this sorrow is so much more intimate and primal than most albums could try to relay. Besides, the love of a partner is something you choose in some sense, but the love of a mother is something almost assigned. A painful burden Sufjan was assigned by random genetics, which only gave him slight moments of joy for all its abundance of misery. In the closing track, Sufjan begins "My blue bucket of gold, friend, why don't you love me?" and it isn't only a plea to a spurred lover, but also the cry of a young boy at the same time. It's that unique dynamic that creates tenderness in this work that most albums couldn't possibly reach.
In that aforementioned Pitchfork interview, Sufjan throws away a revealing line that while his previous albums were works of art, Carrie and Lowell was simply real life. And while in an aside I would argue that this makes this record the most artistic of all of them, it speaks more of Sufjan's creative process, and why this record is so striking. After all, the very first song in Sufjan's 50 State series, is about a man depressed and dying alone, and while Sufjan may have indeed been singing about himself, it was filtered through an entirely formed fictional character, and a lone trumpet. Soon, as Sufjan's maximalism took hold, these emotions were filtered through fictional characters, a whole array of strings, another array of horns, woman choirs, auto-tune, and downright schizophrenic electronic beats. If a bleeding heart is what truly lies in the center of Sufjan's discography, his work up until this point has been running away from it at a steady and furious rate.
And in a remarkable change, here is it laid bare. There is little here in terms of instrumentation. Just lone guitars, simple piano, and modest electronic effects. Death and Dignity becomes with a lone banjo and Sufjan, already shattered struggling to even start the album, literally admitting "I don't know where to begin." It turns out, it begins with Sufjan forgiving his mother, and then wondering if it's even worth it to keep on living. Sufjan's depression is both the main character of the album and its most destructive force, causing a loss of vitality, hope, and even faith. A number of songs on the album just stop, as if being stopped short, sometimes overcome by a hazy ambiance which is prominent throughout the album, or ending with something between a silence and a literal sigh. Possibly the best example of this is "Eugene", where Sufjan positively reminisces about his childhood, until such nostalgia is crushed by his stepmother's death, and the end of the track is completely derailed by grief, the gentle refrain of "I just wanted to be near you" is suddenly transformed into "what's the point of singing songs if no one ever even hears you?" And the banjo stops, on the second.
The most brilliant track of the album dances on the outskirts of this tenderness and brutality. The Fourth Of July cements Sufjan as one of the greatest pop song writers of our generation, using his extensive understanding basic structure to create a song that is the most masterful and affecting in Sufjan's entire discography. The song reflects a conversation Sufjan has with his mother on her death bed where they share their love with each other, for possibly one of the first times in Sufjan's life, and by the end, his mother's death does becomes universal. Yet it isn't the hopeful thing found in Kendrick's album. This message has no desire of being said. It's a cry of desperation, and even horror, forced out by hard reality. "We're all going to die," Sufjan gasps. In the track after, Sufjan admits that even though he is burdened by sadness, he knows nothing outside really matters, and with such a revelation in the previous track, we all know why such nihilism is being unbound.
This is all glum dark stuff, and there's no resolution at the end. There is no Eel's like announcement that "maybe it's time to live", just Sufjan again wondering why in the hell his mother wasn't there for him, and why she had to die. And yet, the album isn't overbearing. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is it isn't trying to crush you. It doesn't seek to cast you into the same depression it depicts. It's almost the aural form of a hug. Looking to connect with the only thing humanity shares in common with each other, our fragility. And hope is found in that expression, that such terrible oppressive feelings are a thing shared by all of us, and known by all of us, and even within these feelings, is love, if not light. What is left of Sufjan after this? We don't know. Is he even OK? We definitely don't know. But again it's that intimacy that separates Carrie and Lowell from To Pimp a Butterfly and most everything else. The fact that the music almost comes off as a secret rather than a widely distributed release. We got to spend time with Sufjan during the darkest night of his soul, and that's something of a privilege.