ALBUM REVIEW: Carrie & Lowell

If you’ve ever talked to me, even for a fleeting moment, you already know how much I love Sufjan Stevens and his music. Sufjan has been an indie darling for the past ten years, but he’s recently gotten more buzz with his latest album, Carrie & Lowell, released last year. Carrie & Lowell has come under fire for being more “depressing” than any of his previous work. At face value, you might even believe it: This album chronicles Sufjan’s childhood, filled with abuse and abandonment at the hands of his mother, the titular Carrie, his self-destructive tendencies following her death, and finally (but most importantly), his eventual transformation and “illumination.” Sufjan put it best in an interview with Pitchfork: “This is not my art project; this is my life.”

The album opens with the song ‘Death With Dignity’. Over gentle fingerpicked guitar, Sufjan sings, “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you/But I’m afraid to be near you/And I don’t know where to begin.” This first song acts as a clearheaded reflection on death, before plunging into the more immediate, visceral pain that is to follow in the subsequent tracks. In the final stanza Sufjan proclaims: “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end.” After everything they have been through together, and all the pain caused, Sufjan comes out transformed and on the path of healing because of his intention of forgiveness.

I had the pleasure of seeing Sufjan live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles back in June of 2015, and it was honestly the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience, in part because of the next tune: ‘Should Have Known Better.’ The first half follows in the footsteps of ‘Death With Dignity’: soft fingerpicked guitar and lyrically characterized by gentle reflection rather than overt suffering. Although at first the lyrics detail regret, “I should have wrote a letter/And grieve what I happen to grieve/My black shroud/I never trust my feelings/I waited for the remedy,” half-way through it blooms into a song on the other side of grief. In the live version, the lone acoustic guitar gets replaced with warm synths and electronic drums that signal a musical and emotional shift. Sufjan sings, “I should have known better/Nothing can be changed/The past is still the past/The bridge to nowhere.” Sufjan admits that what’s done is done. Fate has played its course, and the only thing left is to go on. The last lines are poignant, yet optimistic: “Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing/The breakers in the bar, the neighbor’s greeting/My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination.” Sufjan lists off the things that give him joy amidst his grief; they’re simple, but they work. When I saw him live, he touched his temple before pointing straight at the sky, like a prayer, at the word “illumination”. Like I said, a religious experience.

The song ‘Drawn To The Blood’ is one of intense frustration and anguish overt suffering. “For my prayer has always been love/What did I do to deserve this?,” Sufjan cries out in a haunting falsetto, as if to God. Sufjan is a pretty devout Christian, and imbues such themes into his music, but more so in a literary sense than a preachy one. One such reference comes when Sufjan calls on Delilah to “avenge [his grief],” which is interesting given the fact that, in the Bible, Delilah is painted as the villain for betraying her lover, Samson, for money. Perhaps Sufjan aligns himself with her out of his feelings of guilt; Regardless of the meaning, this one is bloody and dark. But I’m still not convinced that this album, or Sufjan’s music as a whole, is depressing.

Another standout track is ‘Fourth of July.’ Dark piano chords start us off in a call-and-response-like song about the days and nights Sufjan spent in the hospital with his mother, Carrie, before her passing. Sufjan’s voice goes up an octave and uses certain motifs such as firefly, little doves, little loon, and star in the sky to establish that Carrie is speaking. All of the things are terms of endearment one would give a small child, so, while sweet, exemplify the distance between them. Sufjan in turn refers to his mother as “my fading supply” designated, perhaps, her absence. Although, as I said, this song is so emotional, it is also cathartic. It describes healing, forgiveness, and the inevitability of death. The lyrics that always get me choked up are fromCarrie’s perspective: “Did you get enough love, my little dove/Why do you cry? And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best/Though it never felt right.” During the live version the song reaches a crescendo with lights resembling fireworks that move over the crowd in a frenzy as pounding drums and piano back the mantra: “we’re all gonna die,” sung over and over until Sufjan’s voice breaks.

I could say so much more about Carrie & Lowell. This album has changed my life. Listen to this when you’re sad, you’re grieving, you’re laying on the floor of your childhood home, watching the sun go down, drinking beer, tying your shoes, making a mixtape, crying. And when you’re done, come find me.


– Gavin McIsaac