From the first delicate finger picks on the guitar, Sufjan Stevens’ methodology becomes clear: simplicity. Yet somehow, he conveys so much more than that, turning a guitar and a voice into an ethereal intertwining of master storytelling and bona fide beauty, of lessons and of confessions, and of a cathartic evolution of textures, tones, and melodies. From the first words spoken on the album (“Spirit of my silence I can hear you/ But I’m afraid to be near you”) to the last (“Or raise your red flag/ Just when I want you in my life”), Carrie & Lowell conveys an introspective uncovering unparalleled in the modern age of music, fortifying Steven’s artistic transcendence into greatness.
Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ ninth full-length studio album, offering a complete juxtaposition to his last, The Age of Adz. Instead of the electronic distortion and synthesized fusion that complemented his voice on The Age of Adz, his most modern release returns to his roots, illuminating the story of his upbringing and his relationship with his mother through an acoustic guitar and quiet gentle vocals. The brass instrumentals and orchestral arrangements seen in Illinois are not present; the album in its entirety takes on a far more solemn and somber pathway.
His upbringing was not an easy one, as his mother abandoned his family when he was a one year old. After his schizophrenic and depressed mother Carrie walked away from the family, she remarried with Lowell when Sufjan was five, and became integrated once more into the complex childhood of her son, who would spend three of his summers with her and her new husband in Eugene, Oregon. After Carrie and Lowell split up, the motherly figure became an enigma to Sufjan, as her location was always fleeting, and her world was encompassed by social disorders and substance abuse problems. She passed away from stomach cancer in late 2012.
“With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” said Stevens to Pitchfork, musing over the conceptual tranquility of his album. “It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the war of my mother’s death – to pursue a sense of peace serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is good. This is not my art project; this is my life.”
But Steven’s life metamorphosizes into art, with his silky Elliott Smith-like voice resonating through acoustic humming and ambient background modulations. The veteran artist explores his childhood emotions and stories through both accurate recounting of his early life and mythological and religious references, transforming the album into a modern-day epic and fabling the life he grew so accustomed to in his youth.
The first song, “Death with Dignity,” begins at the end, with Stevens singing about the death of his mother, and his incomplete sense of her as a person. His perception of her throughout his child was always mystified, veiled behind her strong abuse problems (“Amethyst and flowers on the table, is it real or a fable?”). Yet, because of the unknown he had faced for so long, Stevens pines for his mother through the beautified darkness of his lyrics (“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/ And I long to be near you”), constructing a last desperate reach out in attempts to grasp the true character of his mother, despite her in-sufficiencies as a parent.
The atmosphere sees no great shifts throughout the album, yet each guitar-blanketed song comes off as something new, whether it be a new way of approaching feelings or a different perspective of times past. The second track on the album, “Should Have Known Better,” elevates Steven’s immense pains of missing his mother towards regret and devastation as a result of not getting to know her as well as he should have. He sings somberly “I should have known better/ Nothing can be changed/ The past is still the past/ The bridge to nowhere.”
“Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, and my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable,” said Stevens to Pitchfork. “There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you.”
The album continues as started, reaching a musical ceiling of the symbiosis between guitar, voice, piano, and the occasional humming/whistling noises. Nothing more is added. Nothing more needs to be added. The haunting confusion and insecurity of Stevens’ past is depicted flawlessly, untainted by the temptation of adding more and more sounds to improve the production.
The title track, “Carrie and Lowell,” begins with a Simon and Garfunkel-like harmony, as Stevens layers the softness of his different vocals over one another. However, the lyrics are some of the most intricate ones on the album. The childhood nature of Sufjan Stevens saw the world in front of him through a binary vision, as his mom was both his loving parent and his greatest challenge (“Carrie surprised me/ Erebus on my back/ My lucky charm”). Erebus is a Greek deity representing the personification of darkness and burden. This image fused with the lost concept of a lucky charm reinforces Sufjan Stevens aging quest to find the true meaning behind his mother, which will now, with her death, never be able to be completed.
The maturity of Stevens scintillates from all of the seams of his latest art, as he harnesses simplicity better than he ever has before. At 39 years old, the Detroit native has seemingly already completed his full artistic cycle, and is continuing not for fame, but for his own personal fulfillment.
Carrie & Lowell – 9.1