Sufjan Stevens’ standing in the indie music scene is pretty much untouchable. Blessed with a devoted fan base with an admirable patience for his rather fickle creative mind and his experimentations that span both ends of the musical spectrum, he’s had a chance to explore the many facets of his creativity in ways not every artist could. So when his new record was announced as a return to folk, many (including myself) understandably rejoiced.
In Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan presents himself in his barest form as he pays tribute to his late mother who passed away three years ago. Listening to the full record in one sitting is an emotional rollercoaster ride, heartbreaking in its piercing silence, simplicity, and straightforwardness about things that we are scared of most in life. Sufjan has always employed a sort of gentle whisper in his singing, but in this record, it evokes a level of intense longing and grief that’s quite hard to listen to. It’s almost impossible not to feel sadness wash over you.
The last lines of album opener, “Death With Dignity” could make a listener sitting alone at home cry.
I forgive you, mother, I can hear you
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end
Yes every road leads to an end
Your apparition passes through me in the willows
Five red hens – you’ll never see us again
You’ll never see us again
The quietness that we’re not quite used to with Sufjan’s music feels necessary here. The rawness of his grief and confusion makes these songs hard to take lightly. There is humanity that we can all relate to and he is not trying to present his experience with anything other than what it is.
I would say that after almost a decade of listening to his music, this is the first time I ever truly felt like I understood him. Though my admiration for his previous records like Michigan weigh heaviest for the quieter, more emotional tracks like “Romulus” and “Holland”, I can’t say I related to them on a deep personal level, and this is something that’s strikingly different in Carrie & Lowell. He has put himself out there without the frills and has come out with his most vulnerable effort yet.
In “Eugene”, my favorite track in the record, he sings:
Since I was old enough to speak I’ve said it with alarm
Some part of me was lost in your sleeve
Where you hid your cigarettes
No I’ll never forget
I just want to be near you
It’s these vivid images of seemingly mundane details that are so affecting because we all know it’s the little things that we dwell on when faced with the unbearable truth that someone is forever gone. Sufjan has always been excellent lyricist, but this time, the songs feel like real life conversations I could be having with a close friend going through terrible loss. And this record, at times, makes me want to reach out and provide some measure of relief. Maybe it’s because I’m estranged from my father that I feel a kinship with him, but in “The Only Thing”, the desperation feels too familiar.
The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark
Signs and wonders: water stain writing the wall
Daniel’s message; blood of the moon on us all
The record benefits heavily from his approach that’s honest, but restrained. There has never been a more fitting time for Sufjan to go back to his folk roots after years of a sort of creative restlessness. Carrie & Lowell is not written to sound like a meditation on everyone’s grief. Just his own, and he’s given us permission to listen and understand it. And judging by the tears some of these songs have caused, share it. He understands full well that loss comes with life and that it’s a thing that we all go through. As a long time fan, I admire him for his putting his life out there. As a person, I appreciate it.