Not often in a world oversaturated with simple singer-songwriters do we ever get to experience something as raw and emotional as Sufjan Stevens’ latest release, Carrie & Lowell. Much of Sufjan’s past works have been introspective, but this particular record seems to find its way deep into the soul and core of his being. It’s quite possibly one of the most devastating and disheartening records of the past year, but still radiates a bizarrely comforting sound.
The record is named after his mother, a bipolar, drug abusing schizophrenic, and his stepfather, who currently runs Sufjan’s Asthmatic Kitty record label. For the most part, however, Carrie & Lowell is focused on the relationship or lack thereof between Stevens and his mother, Carrie, who abandoned him as a very young child. This record is a testament to how much his mother affected his life in his growing up and, eventually, in watching her die. All of the most horrifying experiences Stevens has had come to the surface in this record. It’s so personal and emotionally distraught that even if it was your best friend telling you these things, it would undoubtedly be a difficult, awkward, and very concerning experience.
Maybe it is the uniqueness of Sufjan’s painful experiences that make this record as beautiful and almost reverent as it is. In the song, “Fourth of July,” he delves into the final hours of his mother’s life and how she felt about leaving him as a child. “And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best/Though it never felt right,” refers to his mother’s choice to leave him, knowing she was unfit to raise children. In this unimaginably difficult situation, Stevens does not blame his parents for the traumas they put him through, claiming this record is not meant to make others feel sympathy for him but rather “to honor the experience.”
Themes of mortality are abound throughout “Fourth of July,” but possibly the darkest moments of the record are uncovered on “The Only Thing.” Stevens references suicidal thoughts in the wake of his mother’s death, as if his reckless behavior would allow him to be closer to her. This theme of recklessness is even more deeply explored in “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.”
Stevens has a mystical way of crooning his bewitching melodies in tones that seem so reassuring, alluring listeners to experience the full manifestations of his sufferings, and to draw common ground among all people. This quote from an interview with Pitchfork puts a final seal on the record: “Everyone suffers; life is pain; and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence, so deal with it.”
By: Nick Fief