When this incredible album came out, none of us regulars felt particularly able to write an adequate review. Luckily, we have some talented friends. Sam Farquharson, a fellow Tar Heel and an excellent writer, was kind enough to take the time from her own busy life and review Sufjan Stevens' most recent release Carrie & Lowell.
If you are listening to this album, you get one free pass for crying in public without judgment. Crying at work is okay. It happens. It happened. Okay, I cried at work. Happy?
Carrie & Lowell is the latest from Sufjan Stevens, a multi-talented multi-intrumentalist/singer/songwriter known for churning out an eclectic assortment of music, ranging from folksy orchestration to electronic pop, to the more-than-occasional Christmas album. His discography is diverse, to say the least, but his third album, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State put him on the map (pun intended), and his show-stopping 2005 album Illinoise solidified his indie-star-status.
Since then, Sufjan’s produced a huge list of work – seriously check out his bio – because I checked and if I tried to get into it we’d be here all day.
In short, he deserves mad respect. He plays, like, twenty instruments. TWENTY. Are you kidding me? That’s insane. And he has the voice of an angel. And he wrote a song about Chicago. Maybe I’m a little biased there, though.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a fairly casual Sufjan listener in the past. Illinoise was bomb and I’m a sucker for a good string line, so I was into the orchestrated, quirky flow of the album. I tried to give Age of Adz its due, but I couldn’t. I just added “Chicago” and “Jacksonville” to my playlist and called it a day.
Then Carrie & Lowell happened.
Named after his mother and stepfather, this album is inspired by Sufjan’s mother’s death. Carrie and Sufjan didn’t exactly have a warm-and-fuzzy relationship – she battled schizophrenia, depression, and alcoholism and left Sufjan and his siblings before he could walk. She entered and exited his life in spurts, but their relationship remained fairly conflicted until her death.
The album is a complete 180 from what you’d expect from Sufjan, considering his explorative, eccentric, grand orchestral tendencies. He drops the wings, ditches the trombones, and strips down to his core. He picks up a guitar and gives us a full album of raw (and hard-to-swallow) glimpses into his soul. It’s beautiful.
From the very beginning, when a minimal acoustic line introduces “Death with Dignity,” Sufjan’s breathy vocals present pure, no-holds-barred, emotion. He sings first to an immeasurable silence, then to Carrie, “I forgive you mother, I can hear you/ and I long to be near you/ but every road leads to an end.”
Every track illuminates more complexity behind Sufjan’s grieving process– his regret for the past and struggle to make peace with the present (“I Should Have Known Better”), his self-destruction (“Drawn to the Blood”), and heartbreaking flashbacks (“Eugene”, “Fourth of July”) weave together with heavy spiritual overtones and references to emotional and physical trauma. Heavy stuff.
Musically, the album definitely loses energy toward the end. By the tenth track, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” it sounds like Sufjan is emotionally exhausted and defeated. The weight of this whole experience is breaking him, and he sings in a sweet falsetto about losing his grip on his sanity – “There’s blood on that blade/ fuck me I’m falling apart.” Both “No Shade” and “John my Beloved” end with a breath: no instrumental fade-out, nothing. Just, Sufjan, breathing in. It sounds a little bit like he’s crying. Oh, wait, no. That’s me.
Sufjan never embellishes. He’s never showing off or trying to make a statement. He’s honest. It’s like he’s sitting next to you on the couch with his head in his hands, trying desperately to sort it all out. As he said in an interview with Pitchfork, “This is not my art project; this is my life.”
And that is why I love it. Sure, it’s morbid. Sure, it’s not complicated or groundbreaking, but Carrie & Lowell is everything it should be: a hauntingly beautiful, intimate take on loss, suffering, and most of all – dysfunctional, unexplainable, and undeniable love.
8.0/10: You might cry. It will be worth it.