Sufjan Stevens‘ Carrie & Lowell is almost unbearably sad. If I recall correctly, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree remarked once of the irony how an artist could touch a wide range of listeners by making the content of his music more personal, more specific and intimate, and solely applicable to himself. I felt sharply reminded of that idea as I listened to Carrie & Lowell for the first time while reading up on the pockmarked family history that inspired the music. Of course, even as Stevens is diving into incredibly personal feelings and memories with this album, the underlying nostalgia, heartbreak, and frustrated longing are universal. Carrie & Lowell is, in essence, entirely based around a guy with a guitar who is spilling his heart out for anyone to hear, and it’s probably been ages since I’ve let myself get so emotionally affected by an album.
If Sufjan Stevens is known primarily as a folk singer, the label doesn’t hope to encompass what he’s already accomplished. Those two United States state albums (Michigan and Illinois, for those unaware) were eclectic as anything, ranging from sweet singer-songwriter fare to balls-out orchestration, all tied together by a lofty lyrical concept that was the result of obsessive research. His last album, The Age of Adz, could only be described as electronic and was simultaneously musically dense, at least compared to the unpretentious folk image some might have of him.
Carrie & Lowell, by contrast, does away with the ornamentation. The thing was recorded in his home studio, and most of what we’re hearing is his voice crooning atop a guitar and, occasionally, an airy piano. It’s a basic formula that precious few have really managed to pull off suitably. I’ve heard many artists in the past use bloated arrangements to hide their bland songwriting. Stevens has always been a fantastic songwriter, however, and the graceful simplicity with which he approaches Carrie & Lowell speaks wonders. The music does without lavish arrangements and pushes right through to the listener’s heart. If these songs came with a backing band out of Illinois, it could not have had such an impact. The album’s appeal is its quiet intimacy.
Carrie & Lowell is one of the few concept albums I’ve ever heard where the concept emotionally enriches the experience of the music. Carrie was Stevens’ schizophrenic mother, with whom he had a largely estranged relationship until her death in 2012. Lowell is his stepfather, and judging by the fact that he runs Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, for him, he went far and beyond the call to be there for the singer-songwriter when he needed someone. The album cover looks like a vintage photograph from their personal family album. The lyrics are no less intimate. The songs here generally revolve around Stevens diving back into childhood memories of family trips through Oregon. Like his duo of ‘state’ albums, the lyrics are rife with references to Oregon alongside the personal memories. Such as it is, Carrie & Lowell may have even been called Oregon, but I’m truly glad it wasn’t.
Stevens’ voice is admirably plain as a rule. He’s not trying to put on any character for his audience; he sings as himself, and the personal, specific memories in Carrie & Lowell complement that trait of his perfectly. Even as a concept album, there’s not really a clear narrative or timeline to grasp. He jumps from memory to memory. ‘Death with Dignity’ (cleverly named as an oblique reference to Oregon’s Death with Dignity 1994 Act) navigates the mixed heartbreak of his mother’s death in 2012. By the next track, ‘Should have Known Better’, he’s leapt into early memories where his mother abandoned him. He communicates frustration and abandonment, but there’s never a shred of resentment in his voice as he sings the words. The only really cheerful-sounding song here, strangely enough, is the title track, which offers a rare glimpse of family warmth that Stevens seems to have done largely without.
I am surprised that warm sincerity of this sort is so rare in music, but I know I shouldn’t be. True authenticity requires that the artist be completely comfortable with themselves in navigating their demons. Paired up with his existing skill with songwriting, the result here is always memorable. His skill with melody is instantly apparent, and despite their simplicity, appreciation of the songs only continues to grow as you develop your own connections with them. While gentle finger-picked guitars are usually the sole accompaniment to Stevens appropriately soft voice, added instrumentation does make an appearance.
The fact that aspects like electric guitar and dreamlike ambiance are used sparingly amplifies how effective they sound. ‘Fourth of July’ feels like a quiet revelation in its decision to use muffled ambient piano instead of guitars. I’m also reminded of the shaking beauty of ‘The Only Thing’, where Stevens blesses an already warm song with an electric guitar motif pulled from Explosions in the Sky-type post-rock. Or the ethereal soundscape at the end of ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’, where it legitimately sounds like a heavenly realm where Carrie’s spirit has finally found the peace she couldn’t find in life. The album’s presentation is somewhere in the neighbourhood of perfection.
All of the songs on Carrie & Lowell are small treasures, and as these songs were formed from scars, in their own way, they have scarred me as a listener. The term ‘haunting’ is tossed around in music reviews to the point where the word has all but lost its meaning; in this rare case, it is deserved completely.
01) Death with Dignity
02) Should have Known Better
03) All of Me Wants All of You
04) Drawn to the Blood
06) Fourth of July
07) The Only Thing
08) Carrie & Lowell
09) John My Beloved
10) No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
11) Blue Bucket of Gold