Review Summary: “This is not my art project. This is my life.”
The moments that tear us down to practically nothing determine who we are. They strip us of what is comfortable and familiar while forcing us to draw strength from within. One of the harshest realities facing every human being is death, and that includes the occurrence itself as well as grappling with its implications. How do you respond to someone simply ceasing to exist? Our brains aren’t programmed to comprehend something so linear, unforgiving, and unflinchingly certain. On Carrie & Lowell
, Sufjan Stevens tackles all of these ideas as a way of dealing with his mother’s death. His attempts to fathom exactly why she wasn’t around while he was growing up are also prevalent, among myriad other issues that all unfold like a heavyweight fight in his mind. Sufjan takes as many – if not more – hits than he deals to his inner demons, but he emerges from this record alive. It may not sound like much of a victory, but given his state of depression, addiction, and at times even suicidal thoughts, it’s an absolute triumph. And that’s exactly what Carrie & Lowell
This was an agonizing record for Sufjan Stevens to write. For those who don’t know the backstory, Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, abandoned the family when he was only a year old. She suffered from depression and schizophrenia along with various forms of substance abuse, and decided that the children would be better off in the hands of their father. In the years ensuing, the Stevens siblings survived as a unit, being “raised like tenants” as Sufjan detailed in a recent Pitchfork interview, with little to no leisure time to enjoy each other’s company because his dad and stepmom could never find consistent work. Carrie drifted in and out of Stevens’ life, but she was often homeless. Sufjan to this day describes her as someone who was really loving, caring, and creative…unfortunately, she just suffered
. Sufjan began to relate to her struggles as he grew older; stating how his parents’ addictions made him feel as though he was destined to go down a similar path. Eventually, he even came to appreciate Carrie’s decision to abandon the family, stating that he respected her for knowing what she wasn’t capable of. Perhaps that’s why then, when she died from stomach cancer in 2012, Stevens was so intensely affected. Here is this woman who he will always be tied to – a myth – who left an enormous void in his life while she was alive, filled it during a deathbed reconciliation, and then took it away again with her passing. There has been a great deal of speculation regarding Sufjan’s return to folk, but you can almost certainly bet that none of his reasons had anything to do with his musical career. Carrie & Lowell
is his outlet, his unread letter to his mother who did her best to raise him by not
being the one to raise him, and Lowell – a stepfather who filled the largely vacant parental shoes. It honestly couldn’t be better worded than Sufjan Stevens’ own summation: “This is not my art project; this is my life.”
From the front to back end of Carrie & Lowell
, one can easily tell that it is more than just a studio album. Whereas past releases have eclectically dabbled in just about every corner of the musical spectrum, rarely have they ever offered even the slightest glimpse into the man
that is Sufjan Stevens. There were elaborate stories, statewide expeditions, and characters that may or may not have been based on Sufjan – but never just a sincere outpouring of emotion. It’s the fragility of moments like ‘Fourth of July’, in which one can envision Sufjan kneeling by his mother’s bed – trying in vain to reconcile his emotions and express a love that never manifested – which ensnare every last drop of Carrie & Lowell
’s essence. “Did you get enough love, my little dove…why do you cry? And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best” is clearly Carrie’s narrative, addressed directly to Sufjan during her final moments. It’s the kind of emotional gut punch that no amount of mental preparation can defend against. ‘Death With Dignity’ is perhaps even more potent, as Sufjan sings “I forgive you mother, I can hear you…and I long to be near you, but every road leads to an end” atop pastoral sounding acoustic guitars underscored by graceful piano notes. The atmosphere echoes Stevens’ pain and resonates with you well beyond the lyrical implications. If there was ever beauty to be found in sadness, Carrie & Lowell
’s forlorn opener is precisely where it resides.
When Stevens isn’t writing thoughtful odes to honor the absent-in-life, ever-present-in-death Carrie, he’s most often found battling his own demons. ‘No Shade In The Shadow of The Cross’ depicts the turmoil found in substance abuse and religion, offering up such admissions as “I’m chasing the dragon too far” and “Fuck me I’m falling apart” within a title which suggests that his dependence on God has afforded him no relief from the scorching rays of addiction. It’s actually implied through the album’s lyrics that he intentionally does things like this to himself in order to feel closer to and better understand his deceased mother. In his angst and deep depression, he often lashes out at the same God that he has referenced and even praised in the past. ‘Drawn To The Blood’ sounds like nothing short of breathless frustration, as he cries in bewilderment, “My prayer has always been love, what did I do to deserve this? How? God of Elijah…Tell me what I have done.” It’s all understandable given his torment. At times he even spirals into thoughts of suicide, when he confesses to a background of unassuming acoustic chords, “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm – cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark” on ‘The Only Thing.’ He sums it all up with “In a veil of great disguises how do I live with your ghost?” and “Everything I feel returns to you somehow” – clearly still in distress over Carrie’s death. After all, that’s where a lot of his troubles stemmed from: the abandonment during his childhood, and the realization in her death that she acted out of love. It’s tragedy in the realest sense of the word.
Through all of the despair that emanates from Carrie & Lowell
, though, not once does Stevens ever sound like he’s reaching out for compassion. If there’s one thing that is abundantly clear, it’s that he did this for himself. It may even be a safe assumption that this record would have happened no matter what; regardless of whether it saw the light of day and reached his fans’ ears. Each song feels like a story chronicled, like a journal meant to preserve all the memories of his mother – the pleasant but intermittent childhood visits, Carrie and Lowell’s five year marriage, Carrie’s death, and the hurt and despair caused by his relationship with his mother both before and after her passing. It’s interesting that through it all, he manages to maintain a kind of third-party objectiveness that is willing to admit pain when it happens – like being abandoned – yet step back and say “you did everything you could and I forgive you.” It causes your heart to ache even more for him because he is so receptive to others’ walks through life. He understands that if our time here on Earth is a story, each character has traits and tragic flaws that influence those around them. He sees it from all angles, and it’s a beautiful outlook to have on a situation that left him with so very little.
Left out of the discussion, perhaps too much, are those who stepped into the role of father figure for Stevens. There's Lowell Brams, who was Sufjan’s rock and a dependable safe haven in an upbringing full of tragedy and uncertainty. Even though Lowell is not related to Stevens by blood, he is the closest thing to a father figure that Sufjan ever had. Then there's ‘Eugene’, which is a moving tribute to a swimming instructor he looked up to. He recounts specific memories that welcome us into his past in colorful detail. “The man who taught me to swim…he couldn’t quite say my first name. Like a father he led community water on my head and called me ‘Subaru’, and now I want to be near you” Sufjan recalls fondly over the top of gentle, soul-tingling acoustic guitar picking. Although these men are typically only offhandedly mentioned throughout Carrie & Lowell
, it's very powerful when Sufjan speaks directly to either person. It's almost like a thank you, and given what we now know of his personal life and upbringing, it's easy to see why he has a desire to immortalize the few men in his life who were always there for him.
The only thing separating this record and perfection is the time it will take you to fully digest its depth and overall profundity. One might say that it’s time well spent, or even a pleasure, but that would feel disrespectful to everything that Stevens poured into this. It’s stripped down to its very core; a mirror reflection of Sufjan himself – and that includes the some of the lowest and most emotionally volatile points in his life. Shared with us in the most intimate of atmospheres, it’s so threadbare that you might as well be sitting in his apartment with him as he sings and plays you his life story. The level of emotional proximity, at times, will be enough to make you fight back tears. So instead of describing it as enjoyable, let’s just say this: we hear you Sufjan. Your story, along with the memory of Carrie, will not be forgotten.