Love, loss, questioning and reconciliation are just some of the feelings exuded on Sufjan Stevens’ 7th studio album: “Carrie & Lowell“, named after his mother & stepfather. On this album, Stevens uses his songwriting as a way to deal with, and further come to peace with, his mother Carrie’s death in December 2012. A very human and vulnerable state is presented in these songs in comparison to his last release “Age of Adz” in 2010. As opposed to large-scale electronics and powerful mythical ideals as featured in “Age of Adz”, the release of “Carrie & Lowell” is quite stark & simplistic in contrast.
In the February 2015 interview presented by Pitchfork: “True Myth: A Conversation with Sufjan Stevens”, interviewer Ryan Dombal is able to shed some light on the somewhat folklore-esque life of the singer/songwriter, and allows fans to gain a deeper understanding for the power of this album, and the nature in which it was written. His relationship with his mother is a very important part of this work, and is the centre from which everything stems: a sense of abandonment, loss and pursuit of meaning.
Musically speaking, we hear a much more subdued and resonating quality through the instrumentation, but also very calculated and supportive of the lyrics–which is a huge feature throughout the album. The listener is presented with little more than acoustic guitar, banjo, a few synths/wurlitzers and poignant piano, but the lyrics need nothing else. Stirring and arpeggiated guitars provide a comforting and repetitive backdrop to the story telling, like a blanket, to help the listener cope with the pain they feel coming through Stevens’ lyrics.
The album begins with “Death with Dignity“, a haunting and powerful track that sets the ‘storytelling’ tone of the album. Reminiscent of one of his earlier works, “Seven Swans” released in 2004, we hear highlighted piano tracks mixed in with the moving and hopeful acoustic guitar, a classic Sufjan Stevens sound. It is comforting at first listen, and ends with a very David Crosby-like cloud of vocals and slide guitar.
“Eugene” paints a simple, memory-filled picture of his life and relationship with his mother. Reflective, nostalgic and sad, he sings: “I just wanted to be near you”. On “Fourth of July“, a stand out track, Stevens’ songwriting ushers listeners to feel captivated by the mystery and openness of death. His child-like abandon and poignancy within the lyrics is a trademark of his sound. “We’re all going to die”, which is a lyric repeated several times in this song, features that trademark: unapologetic and to the point, yet soft and peaceful.
The latter half of the album continues to leave heavy, but seemingly light emotions on the listeners’ hearts, embodied in the tracks “Carrie & Lowell“, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “Blue Bucket of Gold” which is the last track on the album. The longing and questioning nature of Stevens’ work is captured so beautifully in the lyric: “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”. Listeners are left feeling like part of Stevens’ family, having gone through so many of these vulnerable states with him throughout the album.
Overall, this is some of 39-year-old Stevens’ best and most inviting work. Captivating, bare, weighted and human, listeners can expect to release a heavy sigh after listening to the album front to back, and want to press repeat over and over.
Buy this album March 31st, 2015 on iTunes or from Asthmatic Kitty.