To listen to Sufjan Stevens is to hear paradox. He’s inarguably one of music’s most gifted storytellers, but the connection between the artist and his stories has often been obfuscated. Take his landmark album, Illinois, a sprawling, stunning odyssey through the history, fables, and culture of the Land of Lincoln: he emotes so convincingly of things that clearly never happened to him (I’m fairly certain he was not one of Gacy’s victims, for example) that it becomes difficult to determine which stories are actually personal (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ comes to mind).
Imagine my surprise at the ineffable intimacy of his March release, Carrie & Lowell. This is a deeply personal album, the kind that gets written not because it’s time to release new music, but because an artist needs to cope the only way he knows how (Hospice and For Emma are other good examples of this). In other words, this album was not made for us, the listeners. Sufjan made it for himself, and for his mother, the eponymous Carrie.
Carrie died a few years ago, and while it goes without saying that losing a parent is a traumatic event in anyone’s life, her passing is further complicated by the nature of her life, and of her tenuous relationship with her family — for Sufjan, she’s defined far more by her cold absence than by the warming presence we ideally associate with our mothers.
To hear this on record is softly, sweetly devastating. Musically, Carrie & Lowell is almost regressive for Sufjan: he eschews both the orchestral flair of Illinois and the electronic maximalism of Age of Adz for simple acoustic structure. His flair for arrangement is still present — songs swell and sigh with emotions of hope and futility, strings and piano add texture and emphasis, and white noise haunts the album between many of the tracks.
But his greatest tools are his oldest: his voice, guitar, and lyrics. His hushed, pure vocals haven’t changed much; they’re still used to great effect as he sings some of his most moving melodies. And there’s a slight but unmistakable quiver in his timbre that lends palpable emotion to a singer that has occasionally sounded detached on past records. His harmonies, too, are equal parts beautiful and bereaving.
His guitar playing will please any fan of Elliott Smith (an early and significant influence for Sufjan) — his fingerpicking is quick and clean, lending an almost ironic technical precision to an album that is frequently about falling apart. But the musicianship is always secondary, lending harmony and rhythm (speaking of rhythm, no drums to be found) to accompany his gorgeous melodies and lyrics.
The honesty and purpose in those lyrics are what make Carrie & Lowell such a singular listening experience. You will never hear an album like this from another artist — it’s as unique as the relationship between Sufjan and Carrie. Sufjan has always had a knack for combining the poetic with the matter-of-fact — that skill is at its best here: “There’s blood on that blade/ Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” His voice reaches for a note just out of reach at the end of that phrase, his futile grasps for solace reflected in the music.
There are very few answers for either Sufjan or the listener on Carrie & Lowell. Even when Sufjan writes from the perspective of his elusive mother, it’s rarely comforting: “Did you get enough love, my little dove? Why do you cry?/ And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best.” Her imagined words ring hollow, as empty to the listener as they must be to a man who was deprived of the motherly love every child so desperately desires. It’s not without some respite, at least. Sufjan still finds familial comfort, whether from the birth of his niece, and from the steady presence of his stepfather (the ‘Lowell’ of the title).
Still, it can’t be denied that this album is a sullen journey. What makes it worth taking is the sheer humanity in its words and music. There are moments on this record where I desperately wish I could offer comfort to Sufjan — not as a listener, but as a fellow human being with a mother I can’t imagine losing. It’s very difficult on an emotional level to be transported into Sufjan’s mind, to come to know some portion of his understandable yet immeasurable pain, and to agree that there’s absolutely nothing he can do to fill the void his mother’s love should occupy. As Sufjan himself puts it, “I forgive you mother, and I hear you/ And I long to be near you/ But every road leads to an end.”
Reviewing this album is a strange process, a bit like evaluating a diary. I can’t objectively assess whether or not Sufjan worked through whatever he needed to in creating Carrie & Lowell; truthfully it sounds like he probably doesn’t, which is perfectly ok. And it’s hard to listen to someone bear his soul across 43 minutes, sharing his most personal secrets and insecurities, and search for flaws or standouts (note that I didn’t highlight any tracks — there isn’t much point to picking them out when they best exist as a whole). In many ways, the personal nature and function of Carrie & Lowell transcend critical opinion.
But there’s still a listening experience underneath the ghosts and demons of this record. And it’s one of the most intimate and affecting you’ll find in music.