Album Reviews

Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

Final Rating: 9.6/10

It’s spring time. The sun is out and all of the snow has melted. Life has gone on with the lingering stench of winter still behind us. The land is still mucky, filthy and putrid; We simply have to carry on. To have Carrie and Lowell on and look out the window of a bus with the sun hitting our face and the bud trailing below us is a great representation of life itself. When people die, there is a split second where virtually everyone else on Earth is alive around them. Life carries on, not knowing that there is the capability of it ending essentially at any moment. We forget that we are not invincible. 

Sufjan Stevens has been a spokesperson for ambition since the start of his career. He has genre hopped out of curiosity and not out of surrender. His last album, The Age of Adz, was featured on my Best of the Decade (So Far) list because of its ability to sprawl above and beyond the walls we created for it. It is long, gargantuan and thrilling. A few of his albums are quite lengthy, but all are large in scope. His previous opus Illinois is orchestrated with precision and class. He feigned a Fifty States project where he would base an album on each of the respective states of the US. He only got to two of those states: Michigan and Illinois. He’s finally gotten to some more states with Carrie and Lowell: Depression, existentialism and loneliness.

Carrie and Lowell is possibly Stevens’ biggest album yet. It’s one of his shorter releases (at about 45 minutes in length) and it is stripped down to merely a few instruments instead of his usual large arrangements. It’s his grandest release because of the distances it crosses into the human spirit and psyche. The album is based on the death of his mother, Carrie, and her relationship with his step father Lowell. He barely knew his mother; She left him when he was young and suffered from a variety of mental conditions (including schizophrenia) when he was older. Even when he came to try to know her, he never truly did. 

This death put Stevens in a whirlwind. He sees his mother’s spirit within his niece in Should Have Known Better and is glad that he has a chance to meet her once again. He questions why one writes songs for the dead “if [they] can never even hear [them]” in Eugene (yet he does just that a handful of times with every song on this album). He retracts this very notion in Death with Dignity by asking what song it is we sing for the departed. Every moment on Carrie and Lowell is an internal battle that tries to trump every other thought. Before, Stevens was a master at creating stories and scenarios. On Carrie and Lowell, which may contain his best song writing to date, he fidgets to find a way to piece even the more simple thoughts he is having together. 

Sufjan Stevens has publicly admitted that he tries to separate his faith from his music, and while his Christian beliefs have slightly leaked within his lyrics before, they have never poured as heavily into his song writing like they have now. With such conniptions, it makes sense that he searched for many answers through the higher power he asks questions to every day. Even then, religion has not helped him overcome these feelings. In No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross, he finds no shelter within the one thing that has brought him personal comfort all of these years. If anything, he feels suicidal, because even religion has become a test to him. He describes a stake that he will thrust into his own heart, never mind his wrists and feet; The suffering must end. 

There is a lot here that can be compared to Nick Drake’s swan song Pink Moon. Drake was a recluse that recorded this album alone within two days. His depression ate him alive. He completed this short album, dropped it on his label’s doorstep, and never made a follow up album (he died two years later, where the possibility of suicide was never concluded). Stevens does contemplate ending it all, but not on Drake’s level. Stevens digs into the graveyard and searches for ghosts instead. He is still alone, but he is trying to be one with the spiritual world. On Drake’s opening title track, he plays guitar and sings alone until he is accompanied by a quaint piano melody (it’s the only sound on the album that isn’t Drake’s voice or his guitar). On Death With Dignity, Carrie and Lowell starts off similarly. The rest of this album is full of lush acoustic guitar arrangements, too.

Stevens adds more layering on his release, though. There are choruses of guitar strums that drape the walls of Stevens’ funeral home. There are a variety of piano chords, synth sounds and more that are sprinkled on the album, and Stevens’ will to try and approach the souls around him seems to magically come to life here. Songs end with a sudden realization that they, too, will cease to exist. All of Me Wants All of You freezes in time, Drawn to the Blood echoes to try and prove to the world that it still exists (for about a minute and a half), and the title track slowly grips onto the last dregs of life it has left as it refuses to pass away. There are other songs that end very quickly, like Eugene and Fourth of July. Then there are some rare examples where you can almost hear the song’s final breaths take on the form of static noise, like the ending of John My Beloved. Stevens takes a gasp before the song ends for good, as if he is taking in his oxygen to try and survive the cut to the next song. Little does Stevens know, he is taking the last air the song has, and it dies instantly.

Not a single song outshines any other here. Every song is equally as effective as the last. From the moment you start with the beginning song until you end with the heart wrenching Blue Bucket of Gold, you will know you have truly experienced something definitive. Many of these songs feel like they are snapshots of moments in Stevens’ life where the idea of death took over what he was experiencing. Fourth of July almost has fireworks going off in the background, where you can just imagine yourself looking at the colourful sky knowing that we, too, will end off with a bang against our will (the idea that this is on Independence Day also adds to the concept that we will all be alone). No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross sounds like it cold take place at church, with Stevens’ head up to the crucified Jesus with tears in his eyes. Should Have Known Better is all in Stevens’ mind as he reflects on the Video Store he was left at and the first time he ever saw his niece.

What ever memory was plagued by the concept of mortality was jotted down here. You will feel the need to go on and the want to give up. You will experience the fear of death and the forced embrace of its finality. Carrie and Lowell is a haunting release that will root your feet into the ground and string your head all the way up to the sky. This album is as personal as a reflection can get, and it took a master wordsmith like Sufjan Stevens to sit down and finally write about how he feels for it to take place. There aren’t any shows or rides. There are only Carrie and Lowell; The two people Sufjan Stevens knows both the most and the least.

“We’re all going to die”. Sufjan Stevens said this in Fourth of July. We all know this; We often just forget. With the seasons changing, we understand that the world goes on even if we don’t. We all seek love, knowledge, success and happiness. Stevens morns the loss of all of those things through his mother. We cannot change our past, so there is no use in trying. And yet Stevens tries with Carrie and Lowell. The final result is much like the acclaimed ending to Six Feet Under. You will be devastated, pulled, thrilled and confused. It’s all bittersweet, though. We champion life as much as we refuse to let go of it. Carrie and Lowell is all of these heart stretching moments that are hard to define with simple labels. In an effort to try and contain this album in one word, what Sufjan Stevens has done here is simply beautiful. It’s just Carrie and Lowell, but it’s all of us, too. 

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.