Sufjan Stevens coming of age in “Carrie & Lowell”
Kelly McGarry | Wednesday, April 1, 2015
We could have guessed from the title, “Carrie & Lowell,” that Sufjan Stevens’s new album would be something deeply personal. The names Carrie and Lowell refer to Sufjan’s mother and stepfather, respectively, though the album focuses mainly on Sufjan’s mother, who was sporadically present in his life, and his complicated experience with her death in 2012. In the opening track “Death with Dignity,” he repeatedly warns us “I don’t know where to begin,” and thus begins a confused exploration through a dark tangle of emotions.
In a sort of coming-of-age work, he abandons the clutter of fantastical lyrics and electronic experimentalism of his recent albums to embrace a raw autobiographical expression of his own experience. Returning to his guitar-based folk roots, Stevens’s resulting music is bare to the point of being criticized as boring. The consistent lightness and ease of the melodies and vocals are sharply contrasted with the unease of the lyrics. The album is certainly not fun to listen to, but it is definitely worthwhile as it captures a deep and painful journey. With a title that refers so explicitly to Sufjan’s mother, no part of the album can be disentangled from her memory, so by necessity it maintains a serious, genuine tone.
In modern music, we’ve come to expect most religious references to have a mocking attitude, but Sufjan is known for having a strong connection with his religion. The references in “Carrie & Lowell” can be interpreted as sincere and deeply personal. He includes religion as an influence in the discussion of suicide, expressing that it is “the only thing that keeps me from driving this car, half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night.” He also references a dependence on his religion, pleading “Jesus, be near me, come shield me,” and an experience with doubt, asking, “How, God of Elijah?”
The entire album showcases a hushed battle with grief. The music itself is slow, almost hesitant. It doesn’t attempt any grand claims. It proceeds steadily throughout, with no definitive climax. In the album’s fifth track “Eugene,” Sufjan himself wonders, “What’s the point of singing songs if you know they’ll never hear you?” He identifies the whole album as an exercise in futility, acknowledging there really is no purpose. Faced with grief, there is no definitive response. This album is instead an honest account of the maturity caused by loss. Though it may not necessarily be the album we want to listen to on every occasion, it’s the kind that we sometimes need to hear.