Acoustic · Folk

‘Carrie & Lowell’ – Sufjan Stevens (2015)

It’s only a matter of days before we’re treated to the annual glut of end of year music lists and I expect this album to be on a lot.

Hailing from Michigan, Sufjan Stevens was brought up by his father and stepmother. His mother, the Carrie referred to in the title, was a troubled woman – she was diagnosed with both bipolar and schizophrenia. This album is an achingly personal account of Stevens’ mixed memories that remain of his relationship with the woman who gave him life – she passed away in 2012. Lowell was his stepfather – a man Stevens admired for being a steadying influence on his mother’s erratic orbit.

Stevens has an piercingly intimate style of delivery, his voice barely rising above a faint whisper. The production here is powerful too, its minimal, subtle input adorning each track with a haunting yet beautiful atmosphere, providing the perfect foil to the mostly sombre content: depression and heartache are pervasive themes here but these are often moments too of poignant sincerity and delicacy – a perceptibly touching grace evident in his grief.

‘Death With Dignity’ opens the album with the sound of a gently plucked guitar ushering in Stevens’ soft murmur. There’s a lovely structure to this song – the distinct pause between each verse seeming to mirror the sudden lull Steven’s mother’s passing affected on his life. How the music metaphorically stops when someone close to you leaves this world. The last verse hits hard:

‘I forgive you mother I can hear you, and I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end
Yes every road leads to an end
Your apparition passes through me, in the willows and five red hens
You’ll never see us again
You’ll never see us again.’

I love the ambiguity of the second line – it really gets across both how Stevens is struggling to find an outlet to channel his mourning and also the stark fact that every life must inevitably meet a cul-de-sac. ‘Your apparition passes through me, in the willows’ hints at the metaphysical, – a recurring motif – representing how Stevens feels the presence of his mother everywhere, his sorrow all-consuming. The last two lines are harrowing, emphasising the blunt finality of death. Despite the heavy lyrics, this is still a beautiful song – the tender guitar, that gorgeous piano at 2.12, and the ghostly choir that leads out the song at 3.10 all serving to envelop the track in a warm, wistful haze.

‘Should Have Known Better’ is a damn beautiful song. It starts off so bleak with those desolate guitar chords setting an utterly downcast mood from the off. Stevens laments his lack of communication with his mother: ‘I should have wrote a letter / And grieve what I happen to grieve.’ It’s unclear whether Stevens harboured this regret while she was still alive – perhaps he always yearned to let his mother how much she hurt him in the past: ”When I was three, three maybe four / She left us at that video store’ – or if he regrets now that he should have written his worries down after she died as a means to help him cope during his period of intense grief. The lines, ‘I’m light as a feather / I’m bright as the Oregon breeze’ always floor me for some reason – combined with that spectral backing voice, there is just something indescribably beautiful and otherworldly about them.

The sudden change in the tone of this song, about 2.35, is stunning, Stevens unexpectedly adopting a more optimistic attitude as a cheerful little synth beams some light out over the darkness that weighed in before: ‘My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination.’ It seems Stevens is able to glimpse a sliver of light – the joyous arrival of his niece reminding him that as some precious souls may shuffle off this mortal coil, other equally beautiful ones shamble onto it.

‘All Of Me Wants All Of You’ seems to steer the album’s narrative in a different direction – it appears to be about an empty, unfulfilling sexual relationship:

‘On the sheet I see your horizon
All of me pressed onto you
But in this light you look like Poseidon
I’m just a ghost you walk right through.’

There is a clear sexual reference there seemingly. The line ‘I’m just a ghost you walk right through’ hinting that Stevens might be feeling taken advantage of which would link with the earlier ‘Manelich, I feel so used.’ This is sung really beautifully, the recurring “ooooh” giving it a lovely light and catchy air. And there’s that gorgeous seven-tone melody after 0.40 that matches lavishly with the refrain of the song title.

‘Drawn To The Blood’ follows this thread, the title hinting strongly at an abusive relationship confirmed by the lyrics, ‘The strength of his arm / My lover caught me off guard.’ The lines,’For my prayer has always been love / What did I do to deserve this?’ are moving, Stevens’ voice breaking into a high pitch as he bemoans his mistreatment. There’s a stunning, eerie, orchestral wash that closes out this track from 1.55.

‘Eugene’ is a song of a more upbeat disposition but there are still definite undertones of regret:

‘Lemon yogurt, remember I pulled at your shirt
I dropped the ashtray on the floor
I just wanted to be near you.’

Stevens’ seems to recall this memory fondly but it does suggest that maybe his mum didn’t always give him enough attention as a child. But if you think that cuts deep, wait for the last verse!

‘What’s left is only bittersweet
For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me
Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?’

The way these lines are sung and written is just masterful I think – nostalgia, despair, fear, hopelessness all summed up so understatedly, so concisely. You really are left reeling at the end. But if you thought that was sad…

Jesus, “Fourth Of July” is quite simply a devastating discharge of raw grief. From the beginning, there’s a surreal, barely there, ghostly ambience to the track which seems to take the form of an imagined back and forth conversation between Stevens and his mother after she passed away: ‘The evil it spread like a fever ahead / It was night when you died, my firefly.’ The terms of endearment they use for each other are emotive and also expressive of their relationship – fireflies provide light and hope, but only in small measure individually, suggesting his mother’s inconstancy.

His mother’s response midway through is heart-rending:

‘Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles.’

Despite its bleakness, I actually find this song really inspiring and life-affirming! ‘Make the most of your life, while it is rife / While it is light.’ Carpe diem! Don’t waste your life – have fun, explore, learn, grow, push your boundaries. The unnerving closing refrain ‘We’re all gonna die’ reminding us all that time is ticking.

‘The Only Thing’ is yet another very strong, moving number on this masterpiece. The opening lines are quite stark, expressing a strong suicidal impulse: ‘The only thing that keeps me from driving this car / Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night.’ The line, ‘In a veil of great disguises, how do I live with your ghost?’ tells us that it’s his mother’s passing that has resulted in this urge.

‘Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow.’

There’s an amazing visceral yearning for the purging of his pent-up grief and desolation – he cannot escape these feelings after his mother’s death. They follow him everywhere. It’s unclear who speaks the line, ‘I want to save you from your sorrow’ – his mother, a family member, a friend? But there’s a gorgeous little flourish just after it’s uttered, suggesting Stevens has gained some healing or respire from his emotional pain.

The title track is up next and it possess a more cheerful character like ‘Eugene’ before it. I take this as Stevens remembering the time he spent with his mother before her death – it was an amiable, genuine, treasured period as they bought tried to make the most of the time his mother had remaining, ‘Carrie surprised me / Erebus on my back / My lucky charm.’ The reference to ‘ephemera’ near the end suggests that while this time was fleeting, they are still memories that Stevens will always cherish.

‘Beloved Of John’ picks up the romantic relationship thread again. It implies an intense first encounter:

‘Are we to speak, first day of the week
Stumbling words at the bar
Beauty blue eyes, my order of fries
Long island kindness and wine.’

But it seems that in his heart, Stevens knows the relationship won’t last:

‘So can we pretend sweetly
Before the mystery ends?
I am a man with a heart that offends
With its lonely and greedy demands
There’s only a shadow of me in a manner of speaking I’m dead.’

The last line strongly suggests that he is pursing the contact as a means to cover up the incurable sorrow he feels inside.

‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ may be a reference to the fact that Stevens can’t find any solace for his grief in religion. Again, the lyrics here are a real distillation of despondency, ‘There’s blood on that blade, fuck me, I’m falling apart.’ Perhaps a reference to a failed suicide attempt. The way he draws out the last word, ‘apart,’ is affecting – like a desperate, forlorn cry out for help that God is not answering.

The album closer ‘My Blue Bucket of Gold’ is interesting. I think it expresses Stevens’ fear of abandonment, perhaps a relic of his irregular contact with his mother as a child. Certainly, there’s a palpable sense of longing for commitment and stability but also of anxiety and doubt in his words:

‘Raise your right hand
Tell me you want me in your life
Or raise your red flag
Just when I want you in my life.’

It sounds like he is giving a friend or lover an ultimatum: stand by me or leave.

So there you go – ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is a phenomenal collection of songs and, more than that, as a whole, an unflinchingly honest and moving effort to confront and come to terms with a deep and heartfelt bereavement. It took a few listens to fully grow on me but the emotional clout this album packs is undeniable. Despite all that, I don’t find it an altogether depressing listen – there’s also a quiet poise and composure diffused in the music. I’ll leave the last word to the man himself: ‘It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering…. This is not my art project; this is my life.’

Rating: 5/5

Standout Tracks: All of them!

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