Sufjan Stevens is known for making some of the most inventive and illustrious Indie music of the 2000s. His breakout masterpiece ‘Illinois’ was an album dedicated to the state and was filled with grand instrumentation and songs. The album is a pretty good pre-curser to what the rest of his discography is like thematically. Stevens has made a habit of making songs about the things around him rather than what’s closest to him. This is evident from the amount of albums he’s done about American history, Christmas or even Chinese zodiac.
It comes as a nice change then, that Stevens’ new album is exclusively about his own life. Carrie and Lowell is the names of his late Mother and his Step-Father and the music on this album is dedicated to them in every single way. As a result of this, ‘Carrie and Lowell’ is easily the most intimate and depressing album in Sufjan Stevens’ discography. The album is largely acoustic, with Stevens leaving the electronic dabblings of his last album behind in favour of many a plucked string and vocals that rarely get any louder than a whisper throughout the entire record. It makes sense that he go back to his folk orientated routes for this record, since it’s a record so close to home – he’s not trying to make a game-changing album or a grand statement, just an ode to the people who brought him up.
But this album isn’t an ode in the sense that it’s a man simply praising his Mother, but an ode in that he talks about the ups and downs of his childhood and upbringing with her. It’s an emotional exorcism of sorts for him as he talks about subjects that clearly have troubled him for a long time. On the single for this album ‘Should Have Known Better’ he talks of how his Mother once left him at a video store alone when he was 3 or 4 years old. On the same song he talks of how he just didn’t really have any contact with his Mother at all around the time of her death, stating that he should have at least wrote a letter to her. It’s this sort of depression that lingers upon the entire album on nearly every song with Stevens pondering upon different parts of his life, both regrets of his own and the blame he puts on his Mother.
There’s so much that Stevens doesn’t know about his Mother and he regrets that so much. His Mother suffered from drug addiction and made many other mistakes in her life which seems to have led to a great resentment Stevens had for her while she was still alive. Considering these songs are literally the way that Stevens has dealt with all of the guilt and depression he’s felt, it’s not surprising that he sometimes comes to realisations mid-song, like on the opening track where he simply says ‘I forgive you mother’ like it’s just hit him that life is too short. He constantly questions himself mid song too, sometimes even contemplating suicide with him thinking about cutting himself, driving his car off a cliff or drowning. Once Stevens gets his emotional exorcism the songs sometimes just end abruptly leaving us with these beautiful instrumental passages that sound serene and heavenly. These songs are so overwhelmingly sad and even though they’re so personal to Stevens they’re unbelievably emotionally engaging.
Even the happier songs are drenched in nostalgia which in turn makes them just that bit more depressing. Stevens often sings of a trip that he went on with Carrie and Lowell to the woods when he was a young boy on tracks like ‘Carrie & Lowell’, ‘Eugene’ and ‘All of Me Wants All of You’. Some of these songs are quite humorous with one line in particular referencing his step dad on ‘Eugene’ trying to teach Stevens how to swim and not being able to pronounce his name so he simply calls him ‘Subaru’. Yet, the way that they’re sung so beautifully and with such sincerity – and even regret – make them so unbelievably sad. Every vocal melody on here alone is enough to bring tears to the eyes of anyone fortunate enough to listen to this album.
‘Carrie and Lowell’ is not only Sufjan Stevens’ saddest, most intimate and stunning album, it could also be his best work to date. From a man who already has a few albums known as classics under his belt this is an impressive feat. This sounds like the work of a man who just wants to make something pure and honest in his music. It’s not a grand statement; there’s absolutely nothing grand about this album at all and nothing very new to the genre of music. It’s just plain beautiful in every way, around every corner there’s something willing to rip your heart out with no restraint.
Best Songs: Death With Dignity, Should Have Known Better, Eugene, Fourth Of July