Sufjan Steven’s latest album is arguably his greatest yet. It is however, certainly the most honest and soul-baring of all his work. Entitled Carrie & Lowell after his mother and step-father, it traces childhood memories both painful and hopeful, as he confronts his emotions— or lack thereof, “My black shroud/ Holding down my feelings” (“Should Have Known Better”) — head on as he looks back on a turbulent childhood with a mentally-ill mother.
Filled with contemplations on death (“Death With Dignity,” “Fourth of July”), un-reconciled hurts (“Should Have Known Better,” “Drawn to the Blood”), and intense grief and loss (“The Only Thing”, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”), Stevens finally lays bare all of the emotions he’s kept hidden over the years. He both imagines and pursues various ways of dealing with the death of his mother (“Cutting my arm/ Cross hatch warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark” from “The Only Thing”; “Get drunk to get laid/I take one more hit when you depart” from “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”). The line “F*** me, I’m falling apart” says everything about his state of being without her. He looks to his faith, crying out, “How? God of Elijah/As fire to the sun/Tell me what I have done” in the song “Drawn to the Blood”, but ultimately finds that there is “no shade in the shadow of the cross” to offer him relief from his pain. He knows he cannot go back, and that “nothing can be changed/the past is still the past” (“Should Have Known Better”).
However, there are moments of light. “Eugene” is filled with memories of his step-father Lowell, who acted as a stabilizer for the five years he was married to Carrie, swimming lessons and visits to Emerald Park in Oregon being among them. In “Fourth of July” his mother helps him recall the times he spent at Tillamook Burn, and a happy memory of a certain Fourth of July while she is lying on her deathbed. In the present, however, Stevens seems to have only one bright spot in the midst of his grief, that of his niece, “the beauty that she brings, illumination” (“Should Have Known Better”). He holds on to her light and beauty until the end of the song like a last thread of hope, and a new way to make things right.
Musically, the melancholy and loss is evident throughout. It’s a soft sound, almost disappearing behind the lyrics at times, but then it shines through with his distinctive harmonies and layering. There is no shortage of sound here - organs, strings, synths- but it is not the bright melodies of albums past. The title track is the most reminiscent of his earlier work, and characteristically juxtaposes itself against more somber lyrics, but on the whole, there are quieter melodies, and the music comes in second behind what he is trying to get off his chest. There is no shortage of emotion or honesty in this album, and that is what makes the album shine. It acts as a small ray of hope that things can get better, and if this album is any indication, the same can be said for Stevens’ music. Things will only get bigger and better from here. But for now, this album provides what much musical reflection often lacks— an honest, unflinching look at what it means to deal with pain and loss. This is the album we desperately need.
LINDSEY WRIGHT. Lindsey Wright holds degrees in Biblical Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary (2012) and Music Performance from North Central University (2009). In her spare time, she likes to try new recipes, argue her point of view, read voraciously, and she dreams of adopting a weiner dog, despite having a cat she loves. You can find more of her writing at dearwilderness.wordpress.com.