Sufjan Stevens ‘Carrie and Lowell’ – Review

9 May

On the song ‘Romulus’, from 2005’s epic ‘Michigan’ album, Sufjan Stevens sung about a mother. At the time few people suspected it was about Sufjan’s own mum as the album was full of characters, mainly fictional and historical. Slotted neatly in the middle of this very biographical album, why should the mother in Romulus be Stevens’ own? So when he prayed her Chevrolet never be ‘fixed or be found’ and said he was ‘ashamed of her’ we didn’t take it that the ‘i’ in the story was Sufjan himself. Afterall, Sufjan Stevens is an artist dedicated to artifice and storytelling – despite the traditional folk tools that he often uses, he’s about as far removed from the ‘confessional singer songwriter’ as anyone you could imagine. Isn’t he?

‘Carrie and Lowell’ is not only a significant, abrupt and accomplished left turn in to (for serious want of a better word) “confessional” territory, it also makes us rethink everything we thought we knew about the artist and his oeuvre. After listening to ‘Carrie and Lowell’ you will never hear Romulus, or many of Sufjan’s other songs, in the same way again. He achieves here what no other popular singer-songwriter I can think of has achieved – an astonishing meditation on death that is somehow compelling, thought provoking and enjoyable.

It’s impossible to fully understand or appreciate ‘Carrie and Lowell’ without some knowledge of the events that inspired it. Sufjan’s mother Carrie passed away in 2012 after a Cancer battle. Sufjan and Carrie’s relationship had been strained; Carrie, who suffered from depression and various addictions, abandoned Sufjan when he was a child, and saw him in-frequently through his childhood. There were some good times though; summers spent in Oregon (an important location on the record) where Sufjan, Carrie and Lowell (Carrie’s husband and Sufjan’s step Father) would briefly interact like a normal, dysfunctional family. Many of these memories, and the emotions related to them, are disected on this record. There is no doubt that Sufjan loved his mother but it’s unsurprising that he also had, and continues to have, conflicting feelings about Carrie. This album, named after his mother and Step Father, finds Sufjan wrestling with those feelings in an effort to process the grief, hurt, anger and devotion that he felt towards her. It’s an honest and through account of mourning that is rooted in specific memories and emotions but will be universally appreciated by anyone who has lost somebody close to them.

Loosely, the album can be read as a an exploration of the grieving process, where Sufjan moves through what is commonly known as the ‘five stages of grief’. So we have some denial (‘Mother I can hear you’), anger (‘my prayer has always been love, what did I do to deserve this?’), bargaining (‘what could I have said to raise you from the dead?’), depression (‘Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away’), and acceptance (‘nothing can be changed, the past is still the past, the bridge to nowhere’). Except, it’s not quite as simple as that. Over the course of twelve heart-breaking tracks, Sufjan falls apart and attempts to pick himself up and put the pieces back together, only, unlike some Sufjan Stevens albums, the narrative isn’t straightforward or linear. The moment of greatest clarity and understanding doesn’t come at the album’s end, but rather at the beginning, where Sufjan realises that ‘every road leads to an end’. The final song on the album, ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’, in contrast, seems to find Sufjan at a point of doubt, reaching out to God, his friends and fables in search of his ‘gold’, what ever that may be. Perhaps what Sufjan is saying is that there is no start and end when it comes to life and death, and neither are there answers or solutions.

The melodies are as perfectly realised as the lyrics. They are evocations of sadness – the way they rise and sink, and seem both foreign and oddly familiar at the same time. They are delivered by a voice as distinctive and remarkable as any other; his singing, in a falsetto that seems to glide with no strain, is heavenly. The music underneath does nothing to get in the way; it’s warm and simply arranged, ensuring the focus is mainly on the words and melodies.

in One sense ‘Carrie and Lowell’ seems to demystify the grieving process; through serious contemplation, explanation and meditation it makes the unknowable seem somehow more knowable. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the lyrics and arrangements, coupled with the complexity and never-ending depth of the emotions being explored that gives us a sense of some understanding; understanding of what it is to mourn, understanding of faith in the face of loss, and I suppose understanding of the ultimate lack of understanding. On ‘Carrie and Lowell’, as in life, nothing is answered fully and there is no happy ending. But the album leaves me feeling closer; closer to music, closer to life, closer to death and closer to God. It reminds me of the healing power of music and the comfort that can be found there.

9/10

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: