REVIEW Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens has always written about personal matters, locking his life experience into the expansive scheme of Michigan’s frost-toned beauty or the orchestrated prowess of Illinois, thereby keeping a psychological safe distance, but on his seventh album Carrie & Lowell, the story of Stevens is the grand narrative. Titled after his mother and stepfather, the album is a sparse coming-of-age tale about Stevens; his childhood, his troubled family relations, deep grief, utter loneliness, and his faith in religion.
Carrie left Stevens and the rest of the family when he was one year old; she was bipolar and schizophrenic, troubled by addiction, substance abuse and depression. She reappears throughout Stevens’ childhood, abandoning him every time. Carrie & Lowell was written in the wake of the grief that followed her death of cancer in 2012; the record is a response to the estranged Carrie, but it is also a record about Stevens finding a way to cope with the blankness of his own mental unrest.
The intimate inwardness of Stevens’ confessions make for a ghostly diorama, hauntingly beautiful and desperately framed at the same time. The music is sparse, gorgeously constructed to feel like a whisper of the past. Fragments of elemental synthesizer and organ melodies, understated background harmonies, electronic washes and bare percussion weave in and out of the sombre guitar licks and baths of piano, painting the record in a fainted glow where memories fade.
The fathomless production is ambitiously understated, functioning as an effective offset for Stevens’ fragile confessions. Carrie & Lowell is an album about the complexities of dealing with human imperfection, a poetically honest work that invoke universal empathy. Stevens meditates on disconnected relationships with an angsty haze of a voice, sometimes breaking into a gleaming falsetto, in constant search for serenity. The purity of his chaotic childhood memories ground the record in a light of unbelievable sincerity; the lyrics are openly direct, unshrinkingly immediate, a sensational of ugliness bursting apart.
The unflinching ugliness that is on display throughout Carrie & Lowell is similar to the emotionally bare 808s & Heartbreak, the fourth album by Kanye West, in its ability to lay bare the complexity of love and loss without suffocating. West’s auto-tuned disproportions were a rumination on isolation, a digitally processed exposition of memories made in the coldest winter. Like 808s, Carrie & Lowell is a yearning to illuminate the confusion that has haunted Stevens throughout his life, lifting the shade from the shadow of the cross he is carrying. Stevens, just like West, revel in a childlike purity: They think that happiness is about gaining something. They crave human connection, and, afraid of falling apart, desire to open up their heart to the world, in turn removing the artifice and dropping the safety net, on their quest to get rid of the darkness they accumulate. Carrie & Lowell is a raw record, an earnest tale of a man torn to pieces. It is a cathartic piece of wonder listening to Sufjan Stevens wrestling with the art of letting go, because loving yourself is complicated, and it is by communicating our deepest fears to one another, that we learn how to give meaning to the meaningless.
Carrie & Lowell is out now on Asthmatic Kitty.