Review: Sufjan Stevens, “Carrie & Lowell”

Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens processes the death of his mother, in his most stripped-down, personal, and best album to date.

Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell opens with a haunting. A spirit travels – through empty rooms, over sympathy flowers, just beyond the songs of birds outside – calling to him. The apparition, at once comforting and unsettling, shakes him to his core, and in its whispers he hears the voice of his mother. For the rest of the album, that voice never leaves his side, a shadow cast across his every thought and emotion, its vice-like grip on his heart never weakening.

Carrie & Lowell is an album about the turmoil of accepting the death of a loved one where there is no possibility of reconciliation. Of what comfort is mourning when it provides no resolution? Of what help is pain if it only produces numbness? As he asks on “Eugene,” “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never hear you?” When Stevens’s mother died in December of 2012, she left him little more than questions, painful reminders of how her absence – driven by mental illness and addictions – left a gaping void in his life. Some two years in the making, the album is Steven’s psalmic rumination of grief, regret, acceptance, and healing in the wake of her passing. As he has described it:  “I was in pursuit of meaning, of justice, of reconciliation. It wasn’t very fun.”

The album is a heavy listen, for sure, but it’s Stevens’s ability to universalize his experience, through haunting scenes and bitter tastes, that makes something so intensely personal so engaging. Though there are moments where you feel guilty hearing confessions so intimate – an experience akin to finding yourself reading the tear-stained pages of someone’s old diary – it’s his evocative images and the haunting melodies he lays them on that compel you to continue. His mother as a tired mare in a wind-swept field, the machines that make a mess in her hospital room, the lonely vampire he has become in the wake of her death – every song presents a vivid, lingering image of sorrow and longing.

The mind does odd things in the wake of significant loss. I recall attempting to grasp every memory I could of my grandmother after hearing of her passing. Like a student chasing wind-blown pages escaping from a notebook, I feverishly replayed every moment I shared with her. On tearful drives home, I would stare into nothing, realizing that memory was all she could ever be. Hazy pictures and brief snapshots became cherished handles for me to cling to her. It calmed me to think of the sun shining through her kitchen as she warmed a pan on the stove. It was soothing to remember the way her hands, heavied by the weight of experience, felt against mine, smooth and taut with the naiveté of youth. I miss her dearly and hang on even the smallest of moments with her.

Anyone who shares a similar experience will find Carrie & Lowell a difficult listen. For Stevens, though, the pain of his loss is also steeped in regret. The Carrie he presents to us is an apparition (“Death with Dignity”), an assassin (“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”), a specter on his back (“Carrie & Lowell”), a ghost that leaps to the forefront of his mind in moments that surprise him with their power to destroy. She left him when he was young, recognizing that her inability to provide him with stability and a loving environment would only hurt him. But much of the pain was merely staved, concentrated to the cloudy days following her death. We are listening to him pick up pieces that have been broken for decades, and you can hear the hurt in each song, as the hushed vocals fade into wailing lap steels and mournful strings.

The album feels like a sequel to Seven Swans, at least aesthetically. Like Swans, Carrie & Lowell is quiet and deeply confessional, but it seems less like a nod and more like a grand culmination. Swans was Stevens’s expression of his spirituality, thoughtful and patient, a careful and poetic examination of faith. To cope with the loss of his mother, he had to return to the same place. For Christians, brokenness precedes conversion, but salvation isn’t meant to rescue you from pain. The kind of resurrection Jesus offers must be experienced, pursued even, each day presenting an opportunity for brokenness and sorrow, hope and liberation. (And “fear and trembling,” one might add.) Stevens chose to cope with death by seeking more of it – in addiction (“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”), the bottle (“Eugene”), doomed relationships (“All of Me Wants All of You”), and thoughts of suicide (“The Only Thing”). Left with nothing but faded pictures and broken memories, he finds himself distrusting of his own perspective. “Did you even love me at all?” he asks. “How do I live with your ghost?”

It’s his answer to that question that makes Carrie & Lowell his most quintessentially “Christian” album. “My prayer has always been love,” he sings on “Drawn to the Blood,” a title that references the cross and family equally. He struggles to escape the legacy of his mother and finds his greatest connection to her in the weaknesses they share. But from the dead soil around him, life begins to bloom. He finds hope in watching his brother raise a daughter (“Should Have Known Better”), and he rediscovers God as he wrestles with depression (“John My Beloved”). His most striking confessions – the painful distance described in “All of Me” and the exhausted, expletive peaked ruin of “No Shade” – are reserved for his rock bottom, turning points that represent loss of control. This – surrender – is of course the foundation of Christian faith, and Carrie & Lowell represents his acceptance of love – complicated, uncompromising, pure – as the only thing worth trusting in a world of pain and suffering.

The album described here might imply a brutal, self-indulgent mess. (“Don’t listen to this record if you can’t digest the reality of it,” Stevens has said.) But it’s the sincerity of these songs, the gravity of his suffering brought to painful and vivid life, that sets the stage for a surprisingly cathartic experience. When the somber “Blue Bucket of Gold” closes Carrie & Lowell with Stevens asking God for a touch of lightning, it’s clear he’s found some kind of peace in acceptance, his words a tired sigh, the final beaten exhale before the promise of a new breath.

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