The Sufjan Stevens that affected me the most was the one that revelled in the quiet, who kept things simple. Illinoise and The Age Of Adz are great records, sonically rich and ambitious. His stature grew, literally onstage with wings on a recent tour, where layers of sound were built up in impressive displays of song arrangements.
For his seventh album Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has put the wings back in the cupboard and returned to his folk roots. He’s also traded in the conceptual grandiosity for the devastatingly personal.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Sufjan and this album is that it is concerned with his absent mother Carrie (and by extension, his stepfather Lowell), who left his family in Michigan when he was a one year old and moved to Oregon. Carrie died in 2012 of stomach cancer and this visceral album is Sufjan addressing the monumental loss of his mother’s life and of her in his life.
Stevens spent a few summers with his mother as a child, who was troubled by depression and schizophrenia. Much of the album is drawn with that little amount of time he spent with Carrie. Interestingly, Lowell, his stepfather, stayed in touch after he divorced Carrie and went on to release music on Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty and is a director of the company. Losing a mother is unbearable but a mother estranged from her son has a profound effect.
The music is sparse, evocative, stripped-bare. Stevens’ doesn’t embellish much musically but he doesn’t compound the hurt and pain in his words with more aural clues. It’s actually a beautiful-sounding album on the surface. Seven Swans, his 2004 acoustic album inspired by Bible songs is the closest comparison. It is an album of grief (On that subject do read Niall Crumlish’s far superior review of this album for State.)
There are questions that go unanswered – “what could I have said to raise you from the dead?”. In both the album’s opening track ‘Death With Dignity’ and ‘Eugene’ Stevens longs to be near his mother. He sings of “this empty feeling” on ‘Should Have Known Better’ and asks “I wonder did you love me at all?” on ‘The Only Thing’. There is searing hurt. “Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow,” he sings on the same track.
His mother, “Erebus on my back” gives an imagined reply on ‘Fourth Of July’ – “did you get enough love, my little dove?” There is much rumination of Stevens himself as a person in the reflection of Carrie through his relationships on ‘John My Beloved’ and ‘Drawn To The Blood’. “What’s left is only bittersweet / for the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me,” he sings on ‘Eugene’.
There is no answer to grief or estrangement. There can be acceptance, reconciliation, mourning and forgiveness. “I forgive you mother I can hear you,” Stevens sings but there’s much pain to get through. Carrie & Lowell offers catharsis for Stevens and consolation for others in his difficult exploration.