It has been ten years since Sufjan Stevens’s opulent ode to “The Prairie State”, Illinoise and five years since his last album, The Age of Adz. And while the extravagant electronic wig outs that characterised the latter album reflected the chronic physical pain Stevens experienced during a debilitating viral infection, the subtle acoustic textures of Carrie & Lowell reflect his wracked soul-searching state in the wake of his mother, Carrie’s death in 2012. Accompanied by previous tourmate Laura Veirs, he contemplates memory, mortality and faith on what is probably his most direct record to date.
After Carrie left when he was a little under a year old, Stevens was raised by his distant father, Rasjid, and stepmother in Michigan. When Stevens was five she got back in contact, saying she’d married again to a bookseller called Lowell Brams and inviting him and his siblings to spend the summer at their home in Eugene, Oregon. Stevens spent three happy summers there getting to know his previously unreachable mother, before Carrie and Lowell’s marriage dissolved and she dropped off the grid again. Lowell continued to stay in contact with Stevens afterwards and became a close fatherly figure to him, later cofounding Stevens’s label Asthmatic Kitty where he is the current director.
While Lowell and Rasjid speak fondly of her as a good mother in the times when she was present, Carrie was a troubled soul who suffered from schizophrenia, alcoholism and substance abuse problems. At times she was homeless, she may have remarried, and over the years Stevens received only intermittent letters from her until towards the end of her life which he spent by her hospital bedside. It was in working through what few memories Stevens had of her and struggling with conflicting emotions that Carrie & Lowell came together.
Setting the tone for the album, opener Dignity In Death harks back to the simple beauty of Seven Swans, floating gently along a mandolin line while a dulcet piano in the bridge mirrors Stevens’s vocal melody. Elsewhere, the choppy guitar rhythm of All of Me Wants All of You adds urgency to Stevens’s wispy vocals laced with regret which recall Elliott Smith, while the double-tracked echoes in the chorus hang eerily like a presence over his shoulder that he just can’t shake, adding extra poignancy to the line “I’m just a ghost you walk right through”. The title track infuses memories of Carrie with Stevens’s characteristic mythology while the nursery rhyme xylophone feel of John My Beloved’s melody counterpoints Stevens’s exploration of faith and self-doubt, stating “There’s only a shadow of me / In a manner of speaking I’m dead”.
As Stevens recalls and sorts through his memories the ambivalent feelings that accompany them are compellingly explored, especially in the central trilogy of Eugene, Fourth Of July and The Only Thing. Compressing memories of multiple summers in Oregon into two-and-a-half minutes of plaintive fingerpicked acoustics, on Eugene Stevens happily recalls learning to swim and eating lemon yoghurt alongside breaking his mother’s ashtray and the early signs of her cancer, admitting “Now I want to be near you, and what’s left is only bittersweet”. Sitting at the album’s centre, Fourth of July recalls the night Carrie died in hospital and is propelled by a clinically frosty piano fluttering in the background like a pulse monitor. Guiltily asking “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?”, Stevens seems to provide Carrie’s responses in alternating verses, saying “I’m sorry I left, / But it was for the best, / Though it never felt right”. Even the solace that can be gained from the advice “Make the most of your life / While it is rife / While it is light” is posed directly against the repeated assertion “We’re all gonna die” which closes the song. Over the gently joyous guitar melody of The Only Thing Stevens contemplates the point of living in the aftermath of Carrie’s death, his glib delivery is undermined by the quavering vulnerability in his voice as he sings “Should I tear my heart out now? / Everything I feel returns to you somehow / I want to save you from your sorrow”.
It is in these contrasts that Carrie & Lowell is most deeply affecting, as Stevens explores the tensions between past and present; life and death; presence and absence; and even between the influences of Carrie and Lowell in his life, the mother he wanted but could hardly know and the stranger who became a father to him, encouraging him to pursue music. Even in the photographs that comprise the album’s artwork Lowell and Stevens stare directly out, while Carrie’s eyes always remain averted, refusing to meet our gaze. Masterfully, Stevens’s tender songs inhabit the limbo between these points, acknowledging the equal tug from both sides. In their spartan, perfectly-formed arrangements there is space in each song for these complex emotions to unfold and their wider implications to take root, with haunting ambiguities that leave the songs stuck under your skin for days.
The album as a whole has the feel of a daydream with hazy electronic swells and sustained chords that blur the boundaries between songs, washing into one another like related memories. As the songs cut through the mist they collectively put together a portrait of a mother who could never quite be grasped, whose absence is felt as keenly as her presence and who occasionally comes into focus only to slip away just as quickly, with Blue Bucket of Gold closing the album in a blinding miasma of indistinct vocals and warm droning synths.
Memories, like the photograph that adorn the album’s cover, fade with time. In working through his memories and committing them to tape, Stevens has managed to do that rare thing which many artists strive for: render a personal experience in all its richness and ambivalence in a way that feels vivid and universal. And like other albums such as Eels’s Electro-Shock Blues that have been wrought from painful experiences, Carrie & Lowell is disarmingly beautiful and uplifting because of its origins, not in spite of them.
Review by: James MacKinnon