Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Released: March 31, 2015
I lived nearly a quarter century before grief truly arrived in my life. A little more than three years ago, a national tragedy turned personal within hours of the story breaking. The death of my friend Alex came as a violent shock, unheralded by disease or decay, and the grief is something I carry with me every day. My life began to pivot in the wake of this singular event and in the months following the untimely death of my friend, I grew up. Inspired by his memory and his example, I began to evaluate who and what really mattered to me and I suddenly cared less being a cool guy and started trying to be a good man. In the time since his death, I’ve learned that even the most horrific events in life can change you for the better.
There is no songwriter in the world better equipped to tackle this kind of devastating and transformative life event than Sufjan Stevens. On his 7th LP Carrie & Lowell, Stevens wrestles with the death of his mother and siphons new meaning from childhood memories. It’s heavy stuff but its wondrously, achingly beautiful.
While only tiny pieces of Carrie & Lowell resemble Sufjan Stevens’ work on Age of Adz (2010) and Sisyphys (2014), those more experimental projects have clearly influenced his approach to even the most bare sounds and the result is enchanting. Sisyphus, a side project with rapper Serengeti and indie electronic artist Son Lux, is a strange and often dazzling mess of ideas, but there are hints of their self-titled debut album here. Sisyphus songs are constantly moving and transforming, and bits of this progressive songwriting can be heard on Carrie & Lowell. Sufjan Stevens’ last proper solo LP Age of Adz is a towering, largely electronic opus that magnifies the scope of his previous work to cosmic levels but Carrie & Lowell refines and condenses the vast experimental colors of Sufjan Steven’s artistry into a rich and intimate soundscape.
Carrie & Lowell is a return to the sparse acoustic sounds that made Sufjan Stevens famous, mostly acoustic guitars and piano, but this album has such a strong emotional core that even the smallest moments feel massive. “The Only Thing” starts small and bright as a plucked acoustic guitar dances through arpeggios before ambient layers of synthesizers arrive alongside an electric guitar. The song billows and coalesces, giving me chills each time I hear it. Carrie & Lowell is filled with moments like these; dramatic sounds appearing at just the right time to expose some new revelatory emotion.
Carrie & Lowell isn’t just a sound to be heard; it’s knot of experience and feeling to be untied. This record is a breathing, bleeding collection of introspective poetry that compels the listener to look inward and confront what they’ve buried, burned and forgotten. From the mournful “Fourth of July” to the nostalgic “Eugene”, his grief takes the form of little images and memories that once uncovered, swell and reform to take on new significance. Sufjan Stevens has always written intimate songs that house emotional depth and complexity, but Carrie & Lowell is an entirely new level of achievement.
I’ve been sitting on this half-finished review for months. Carrie & Lowell is not the kind of record I can casually listen to in the background and I’ve struggled to revisit the album because I know exactly how it will make me feel. Each journey from “Death With Dignity” to “Blue Bucket of Gold” reminds me of what I’ve lost and the pain I felt in the passing of my friend but Carrie & Lowell isn’t all dirges and devastation. There are thin beams of light and hopefulness bursting from the memories and experiences he tenderly offers his listeners. Sufjan Stevens uses Carrie & Lowell to mourn his mother’s passing, say what he left unsaid and immortalize his most treasured moments and although the album is shrouded in sadness, there is a warm underlying thankfulness for the time he was given. It’s painful to confront even the glowing memories of the departed, but there can be such joy and love unearthed in the darkness of the past and the little patches of Sufjan Stevens’ narrative are so beautifully sewn and so gently shared, that they have the capacity fill the gaps in our own personal tapestries.
Carrie & Lowell is a flawless masterpiece.
Top Tracks: “Fourth of July”, “The Only Thing”, “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”