Often known for his lush orchestras and eccentric electronic freakouts, Sufjan Stevens has stripped away excess in order to deliver an honest and open record that holds no place for ambiguity. Carrie & Lowell is the singer-songwriter’s first album in five years (if we’re not counting the box-set Silver and Gold released back in 2012), and it’s an unapologetic return to the indie-folk roots that dominated such albums as Seven Swans. The album surrounds the death of Stevens’ mother and the struggle of coping with not only that trauma but also the troubled relationship he had with her while she was alive.
Supposedly when Stevens was very young, his mother left him and his siblings in Michigan and took off for the west coast. Being a product of divorce, Stevens now speaks out to his lost mother, saying how he wants to be ‘near her,’ which makes the emotional distance feel as great as the physical. Culminating in the death of someone that could never truly be reached, Sufjan’s world is thrown into discord with his own reflections on religious beliefs, sexual promiscuity, and frequent retreats into the darkest corners of his being — all of which forms 11 haunting tracks that highlight the valleys in life that everyone has gone through.
The music on this record is almost Elliott Smith-like, with breezy guitar picking and delicate electronic touches. Stevens’ vocals are layered whispers that remain constant and cold, surrounded by the hush sounds he’s strung together. It’s a record meant to be listened to alone in silence, in order to be as empathetic with Sufjan as one can possibly be. I must say, though — even with this suggestion Carrie & Lowell still manages to be Sufjan’s most listenable album to date, if only because of its simplicity and brutal honesty.
Truly, I don’t think it’d be fair to the album to pick out a few tracks and highlight the important details about them. Carrie & Lowell is an experience in itself, and the songs are most enjoyable when played together, rather than being separated from the story the entire record tells. But for the sake of review, “Fourth of July” is one of the most haunting tracks, and it encompasses the majority of the themes present throughout. Chills run down your spine when you hear the repeated line and revelation, “we’re all gonna die.” Also, the little ‘pet names’ that seem to be shared between Stevens and his mother, such as “my little dove,” only serve to further break your heart. The continuous piano notes here lull you into a trance that gets you thinking about your own mortality, instilling an inkling of fear into your mind about how nothing is permanent.
Carrie & Lowell, overall, is a testament to a parental relationship that was far from ideal, left unresolved by a seemingly unexpected death. But another dimension must be noted: Stevens (though he doesn’t look it) is going to be 40 years old this year. Any person that reaches a sort of ‘halfway point’ in their life is bound to be more conscious of death and their accomplishments thus far, more so than most teenagers and 20-somethings at the very least. I think that this might be the hardest thing for younger fans to empathize with, but at least this idea is presented as an underlying tone within the main focus of mourning for his mother.
Carrie & Lowell now ranks, for me as a fan, as my favorite work released by the indie-folk idol. If nothing else, it’s clearly his most personal record to date — so maybe think twice before playing it at your next party.
Carrie & Lowell is out now on Asthmatic Kitty.
Review by Trevor L. Sensor.