“This is not my art project; this is my life.” As one of indie music’s most enigmatic artists, Sufjan Stevens has always concerned himself with the ‘expansion’ of his sound. The electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit, the lo-fi folk of Seven Swans, the baroque pop of Illinois; his prior efforts all culminating in his most divisive album yet, 2010’s The Age of Adz. The 75-minute apocalyptic opus, complete with orchestral crescendos and discordant electronics, was an achievement not only for its drastic change of style, but for shifting the lyrical focus from narrative, to themes and emotion on a personal scale. His music had always been hauntingly beautiful, and quietly life-affirming, but it had never sounded so relatable, and so intimate.
It’s interesting to note then, though his delicately finger-picked guitar, fluttering piano, and hushed whisper of a voice may suggest otherwise, intimacy is a word unfamiliar to Stevens. His mother, Carrie (for whom the record is named, alongside his stepfather), left him and his family at the age of 1. He was then raised with his siblings – with whom he describes his relationship with as ‘camaraderie’, rather than love – in a home that left little time for casual enjoyment. Carrie, suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, had only sporadic interactions with her children, up until her death in late 2012. The passing devastated Stevens, leaving a vacancy within him that was never entirely occupied in the beginning.
Carrie & Lowell, written in the period succeeding his mother’s passing, provided the canvas for Stevens to articulate his thoughts. He sings of suicidal thoughts, regret, love, life, and religion. Eloquent as always, and poetic in nature, he has never been quite so stark, and as resolute. Fittingly, with lyrics so honest and raw, gone are the choirs, orchestras, and electronics, leaving only an acoustic guitar, piano, and his voice. The resulting record is understated, and evidently gorgeous; yet, sorrow is laced throughout, as well as an undercurrent of angst and moodiness.
The poignant, “The Only Thing”, is the track that best exemplifies his struggles. Questioning the reason to live, “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm / Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark”, and questioning his mother and her abandonment, “I wonder, did you love me at all?” Similarly, on lead single, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, he sings of how he dealt with his mourning (“My only lover / Give out to give in / I search for the capsule I lost”), claiming acts of rebellion, and substance abuse, were his way of getting closer to her. “I long to be near you”, he croons in the delicate opener, “Death with Dignity”. Stevens consistently voices his hesitation towards the future, but knows all too well that though the path may be uncertain, the destination is not; “Every road leads to an end.”
Clearly, Carrie & Lowell is a gloomy album, by anyone’s standards. The album frequents the ideas of endings, and ghosts; death is referenced on almost every track. In comparison, light is only mentioned twice on the entire record. It makes these moments gleam, and they serve a distinct purpose. “Make the most of your life, while it is rife / While it is light.” The only guidance of its kind on the album, actively encouraging the life he seems so willing to forgo.
However, it is on the second track, the standout, “Should Have Known Better”, where he offers a true glimmer of hope; “My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination.” Even someone who felt as incarcerated, and as void of intimacy, as Stevens, acknowledges that though a life must ultimately come to an end, there is an undeniable beauty in the creation of new life. Most artists would tend to close a depressing record on such an uplifting note, but as mentioned above, Carrie & Lowell was not made to accommodate the listener, or to prove his musical capability. This isn’t Funeral, nor is it a touching coming-of-age story; this is his life, and it’s all the more beautiful for it.