This piece originally appeared on fasterlouder.com.au
Sad songs are Sufjan Stevens’ stock in trade. Like Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, Sufjan overlays loss and intimacy to find something more profound in both, so it seems natural that he’d work through the complicated feelings about his mother’s death on record. Carrie & Lowell’s quiet intensity is something altogether different from older tear-jerkers like ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, though, marking an album no less challenging than the polarising Age of Adz.
Sufjan’s relationship with his mother is critical to Carrie & Lowell. Carrie left her family when Sufjan was 1, feeling unable to raise him and his siblings. A few years later, when Sufjan was 5, Carrie married Lowell Brams, and Sufjan went to live with them in Oregon. Carrie struggled all her life with depression, addiction and mental illness, though, and her marriage to Lowell ended just a few years later. After that, Carrie and Sufjan had only sporadic contact up until her death in 2012 from stomach cancer.
It’s obvious from the beginning that Sufjan is mourning his mother’s death and the lost possibility of their relationship in the same breath. Unlike the Notebook-sweetness of, say, ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, he’s still struggling to process his very complex feelings. That irresolute headspace is a confusing and desperate place, and makes Carrie & Lowell a powerful, confronting album. In some ways, it feels too intimate, like you’re eavesdropping on an appointment with his psychiatrist. Looking for comfort in a turbulent time, Sufjan calls on his faith (begging Jesus to “bear near, come shield me” on ‘John My Beloved’), which has been a constant reference point through his career. In contrast, when he sings, “fuck me I’m falling apart” on ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’, it comes out of that same need for closeness, for security, but the directness with which he writes is striking from a songwriter more known for sensitivity than sexuality. That raw vulnerability is Carrie & Lowell in miniature, and it makes for uneasy listening.
Musically, Carrie & Lowell feels more familiar. The electronic frenzies and harsh processing of Adz have faded, replaced by delicate fingerpicking and soft coos that hark back to Seven Swans or Michigan. Though the tones are more like the Sufjan of old, he’s shed much of the warmth of those older albums, the guitars and banjos feeling brittle instead. It’s a sparse record, without much in the way of melody or deftly layered percussion to smooth things out.
You won’t walk away humming the tunes, but Carrie & Lowell will stay with you. Sufjan has prettier albums, and sweeter albums, but none has the impact of Carrie & Lowell, though maybe that’s for the best. It’s not an everyday listen; it’s far too discomfiting to be the background to a train trip, or even in a film score. It is, however, a beautiful and sincere meditation on loss, grief and human connection, and sometimes that is exactly what you need.