Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell

carrielowellSufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell
(Asthmatic Kitty)
4.5 out of 5 stars

The death of a loved one is perhaps the most traumatic event that can take place in a person’s life, and it affects different people in different ways. Some folks turn inward and back, replaying the relationship with the deceased to make sense of the regret and guilt that often accompanies such a loss. Others try to look beyond, grasping at fantasies and myths in an effort to escape the harshest truth that real life deals us: Everybody dies.

Sufjan Stevens faced down just such an event when his mother passed away a few years ago, and the album that he wrote in her honor goes to both of the aforementioned extremes. Carrie & Lowell are the names of Stevens’ mom and stepdad, and much of the album flashes back to the precious few childhood years when he joined the titular duo in a close approximation of normal family life, before mental and physical problems made Carrie only a sporadic presence in his life.

You don’t need any of that backstory to enjoy the sheer beauty of Carrie & Lowell. Imagine stripped down versions of the marching-band pop that Stevens perfected on his state-based albums, and you have an idea of the musical backdrop here. Even with just acoustic guitars, keyboards, and the occasional synth wash or electronic pitter-patter off in the distance, Stevens builds mini-symphonies full of buoyant countermelodies and expertly-timed tension and release.

His expressive vocals are the unifying aspect, conspiratorial whispers turning to yearning moans in acrobatic swoops. Stevens’ previous secular LP, 2010’s The Age Of Adz, purposely mitigated those vocals and tunes in favor of distortion and noise, but he knows he needs the intimacy here. Songs like “Eugene” are achingly pretty and delicate, as if the wounds described in the lyrics would bleed anew from anything but the lightest, most sympathetic touch.

Medusa, Delilah, and Dido are just a few of the muses Stevens summons in his futile attempts to alleviate his pain and confusion. Yet he struggles to reconcile these deities and myths with the tangible, messy memories of his childhood: Swimming in an Oregon park, spilling his mother’s ashtray on the floor, a video store where she abandoned him as a toddler. As he veers back and forth between the fantastical and the finite, we can hear every furious pull in his internal tug of war.

Amidst crazed epithets like “Rose of Aaron’s beard” which sound like Ron Burgundy’s discards, Stevens touchingly reaches out for answers that aren’t forthcoming. On “Should Have Known Better”, he admits “The past is still the past/The bridge to nowhere.” “Death With Dignity” locates the echoes of his mother’s spirit, but it is a hollow achievement: “And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end.”

As the narrator’s path to acceptance hopscotches back and forth instead of taking a linear path through the stages of grief, we start to see the extent of the damage done. On “The Only Thing,” his thoughts turn to suicide, and he eventually admits that “I’m falling apart.” Yet the melodies soften the blow; the final two songs, “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” and “My Blue Bucket Of Gold” descend like grace upon a damned soul.

There are a lot of high points and stunning moments throughout the album, but “Fourth Of July” will drop jaws. Over atmospheric keyboards, Stevens recounts a deathbed conversation with his mother, he making one last plea for answers, she resigned and wise, advising, “Make the most of your life, while it is rife/While it is light.” Whether or not the conversation occurred in that way or even took place at all is irrelevant, because the lesson was imparted. And Carrie & Lowell demonstrates, brilliantly and harrowingly, over and over again, how life’s most valuable lessons can only be gleaned by enduring its worst circumstances.