Sufjan Stevens has always dwelled on the grand mysteries and big questions of life. But on Carrie & Lowell he is stripped bare, revealing his deepest wounds.
Few things in life compel a person to reflect on one’s roots more than the death of a parent. A year ago, Mark Kozelek sang about how devastated he will be when his beloved mother passes away, and ruminated on the fiery death of a distant cousin. As a result, Benji was perhaps his most personal record, stripped down to little more than a man, his guitar and his memories. On his seventh proper album—and first in five years—Sufjan Stevens takes a similar approach with the spare instrumentation of Carrie & Lowell, features inspired by the 2012 death of his mother.
Unlike Kozelek’s maternal pillar, Stevens’ mother Carrie left him and his father when he was a young boy. She struggled with addiction and mental illness, but Stevens was able to rekindle a relationship of sorts by visiting her and her new husband, Lowell, in Oregon. Carrie & Lowell, then, acts as a tender meditation on memories of a patchwork relationship he was able to piece together with the woman who brought him into the world. This is a return to his personal roots, but also to his professional ones. Steven’s previous album, 2010’s polarizing The Age of Adz was an electronica infusion that saw him at his most experimental. Since then, he put out his second Christmas album and collaborated with Son Lux and Serengeti on alternative hip-hop project Sisyphus. But on Carrie & Lowell he gets back to basics, shunning even the triumphant orchestral tone of 2005’s Illinois.
Carrie & Lowell is all tenderly plucked guitar strings and somber piano. Stevens’ gentle, whispery voice conjures up memories, evokes picturesque Oregon imagery and reflects on a fractured relationship that nevertheless has him longing for his mother’s presence. “Death with Dignity” (which is also the name of Oregon’s assisted suicide law) opens the album with Stevens cooing about not knowing where to begin. He finds his way to proclaim forgiveness of his mother, while lamenting, “Your apparition passes through me in the willows and in five red hens/ You’ll never see us again.” With this song, the singer-songwriter chooses to begin at the end.
More than on his previous work, Stevens’ use of Christian allegory and direct biblical references feels entirely natural on a record that’s imbued with childhood memories. He sings of Delilah and the God of Elijah in “Drawn to the Blood.” All subtlety to the religious references falls away by the back half of the album, as on “John My Beloved” he concludes the song with “Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me.” In “Blue Bucket of Gold,” Stevens will plead “Lord, touch me with lightning.” On “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” Stevens juxtaposes those references with fantasy, discussing addiction through cloaked terminology of “chasing the dragon” or a “lonely vampire inhaling its fire.”
As fitting as the broader mythic and religious imagery is for a record that finds Stevens pulling open his very chest, it’s the more specific childhood memories that are most moving. In “Eugene,” Stevens discusses first meeting his stepfather, Lowell, who routinely stumbles over the name “Sufjan,” and instead decides to start calling him “Subaru.” On “Should Have Known Better,” Stevens addresses his mother’s neglect head-on, as he sings of her abandoning him once at a video store when he was “three, maybe four.” He determines that, though the wounds may still ache, regrets are futile because “Nothing can be changed/ The past is still the past.” But the track does take on optimistic tone (and there’s an injection of the slightest hint of electronics via ethereal keys) as he sings of not backing down.
The album’s two most powerful songs are placed in its middle. In “Fourth of July,” death is simply beautiful as Stevens’ invokes the celebratory and ephemeral nature of fireworks, a metaphor for our tenuous hold on life. Here, he also addresses his recently deceased mother as his firefly, his little loon and other winged creatures. There’s something profoundly and strangely comforting about Stevens repeating “we’re all gonna die” near the song’s end. But he’s still haunted by his mother. On “The Only Thing,” Stevens asks “How do I live with your ghost?” and wonders if he should tear out his eyes and heart because“Everything I see returns to you somehow.”
Stevens has always dwelled on the grand mysteries and big questions of life. But on Carrie & Lowell he is stripped bare, revealing his deepest wounds. His philosophy isn’t artificially enhanced by sonic swells or the pageantry of his live shows. Instead, it’s rendered in vivid imagery and direct emotional experience. Though his relationship with his mother wasn’t ideal, her death allowed him to see the beauty in it, to forgive her and learn more about himself in the process. By looking inward and fearlessly holding up what he finds there for all to see, Sufjan Stevens has achieved his highest art.