‘Carrie and Lowell’ sees Sufjan Stevens refine his music down to its essentials. There are no orchestral flourishes, no electronic embellishments; there aren’t even any drums. With tongue lodged firmly in cheek Stevens has even jokingly described the album as “easy listening”.
The truth is it’s anything but. This is a record of searing honesty and stark soul-bearing emotion. The album revolves around the death of his mother and tries to make sense of the unfathomable; of the loose wires and uncertainty and unanswered questions and bottomless feeling of loss that comes with losing a parent. Yet it only takes half of the opening track for him to realise the impossibility of his quest: “I long to be near you but every road leads to an end.”
But it’s the journey to get there that brings the warmth and comfort. Understandably it’s not for the faint hearted: this is a harrowing though beautiful and tender listen. As he meditates on life and death, and all the mess that surrounds it, there is uncertainty and no answers but there is hope. “I just wanted to be near you,” he pleads on Eugene.
Musically it’s closest to ‘Seven Swans’: plucked guitars and piano soundtrack whispered singing. It’s far from ornate orchestra of Illinois and, as the searingly personal nature of the material demands, free from any superfluous embellishment. Nor can it be accused of over-sentimentalising their relationship: he is unflinching in his recollections of his mum who left them when Sufjan was only one. There is hurt and confusion, suicidal thoughts and tales of regret and violence.
It means there are no answers, only comfort in the memories and it’s the details of being taken swimming and his life in Oregon that make this hit hardest. There’s also the reconciliation and the understanding: “I want to save you from your sorrow,” he sings on ‘The Only Thing’ while elsewhere on Eugene he sings “Now I’m drunk and afraid wishing the world would go away.” And when he sings “I love you more than the world can contain” on ‘John My Beloved’ your heart feels like it wants to explode.
All this hope and despair are captured in one song. “We’re all gonna die” he repeats over and over on the plaintive piano of the album’s majestic centrepiece ‘Fourth Of July’ before imploring “Make the most of your life, while it is rife, While it is light.”
Right from the snapshot of Sufjan’s parents on the album cover it’s clear the artifice has gone (“This is not my art project; this is my life,” he’s said). It’s demanding and it’s beautiful and you can feel Sufjan’s exhaustion in all his emotional flailing and trying to piece together his thoughts.
On ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ he sings “Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” Amid all the hushed beauty and spectral wonderment the sentiment sticks out. The events that we grapple with which are bigger than ourselves. The ones that we try to comprehend before giving in to the impossibility of an answer that will satisfy. With ‘Carrie and Lowell’ Sufjan Stevens understands all of that. But by going through it all, by exposing all the pain, he’s created something beautiful and vital.