ALBUM: Carrie & Lowell ARTIST: Sufjan Stevens
Album release date: March 31st, 2015
A much anticipated release
My devotion to Sufjan Stevens is desultory, at best: I find that if I listen to too much of him, the ache of his life rubs off on me. He afflicts me in my places of comfort, even as he edifies, and makes me more intensely cerebral than I already am. Yet, his sincerity draws me back again and again, and refreshes me after I’ve been away bobbing like a lead balloon in the facade-fueled zeitgeist of the day. It was with anticipation that I awaited the release of the Michigan-born artist’s latest work.
You feel as if you should glance away
Consisting of 11 beautiful tracks, Carrie and Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ seventh studio album. It offers such immediate insights into Stevens himself that, at times, listening to it is tough. It is so visual and tender that it reminds you of the sense you get after you’ve observed someone sleeping for a moment or more: you feel as though you ought to glance away, because although they are beautiful in their repose, they are helpless. Looking upon their slumbering face for too long feels unfair, since they can’t defend themselves (and let’s be honest, once we leave childhood behind, most of us go around all day doing just that). Perhaps it is the very helplessness of sleep – that dress-rehearsal for death – that makes it beautiful and fascinating, now that I think of it; and maybe it is the helplessness of Sufjan Stevens, he who is so aware of death and what lies beyond it, that makes him compelling.
An ongoing journey
Compared to previous works, Carrie and Lowell is musically stripped down, involving little more than guitar and Stevens’ voice. He makes masterful use of the vacuousness, which in turn makes the lyrics that much more impactful. Right from the airy opening track, entitled Death with Dignity, you are quietly made privy to the inner turmoil that marks Sufjan’s life. The main theme he turns to in this collection of songs is his grief over the shadow of death and abandonment which characterizes his concept of his mother (yeah, it’s heavy). Stevens’ mother, Carrie, struggled with manic-depression and schizophrenia, as well as drug-abuse. She left her family when Stevens was one. Throughout the duration of her life, her contact with her children and ex-husband was intermittent, though with a few ephemeral snatches of presentness here and there (notably, summer trips out to Oregon with the children and her second husband, Lowell: Stevens looks back wistfully on these times of pseudo-normalcy in several songs). Having passed away from cancer in 2012, her tragic figure has evidently haunted – and inspired – at least one of her children throughout his 39 years of life. Beneath the tender vocals that grace the album, the actual words of the songs reveal an ongoing journey through loneliness, anger, and loss, often directed with heartbreaking gentleness toward Stevens’ mother, as we hear in Blue Bucket of Gold: “Why don’t you love me?…/Tell me you want me in your life./Raise your red flag/just when I want you in my life.” In Should Have Known Better, the second track, a deep-seated fear of intimacy is revealed, while simultaneously expressing the confusion left in the wake of abandonment; but then it gives way to hope – hesitant hope, but hope nonetheless, and a nod to life as Stevens sees it in his brother’s daughter – “Illumination,” he sings of her.
Acknowledging the need for healing
The heaviness, ennui, precariousness, and questioning of these songs would be nearly unbearable if they did not come back, again and again, to some sense of resolution in Stevens’ identification with a suffering but triumphant God. Biblical imagery, theophany, and fragmented prayers weave their way throughout these songs, like fine but mighty strands of a spider-web that imperceptibly cradles the whole endeavor. In one breath he beseeches his mother to give him rest, to give him love, to be for him what he so desperately needs, to no avail; and at the brink of despair, in the same breath he acknowledges God, who waits at the bottom of every craving. The song The Only Thing captures this interplay between faith-doubt, hope-despair best: “The only reason why I continue at all/signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark/Blind faith, God’s grace/nothing else left to impart.” He wavers: “Should I tear my eyes out now? Should I tear my heart out now?” (For what good have they brought him? They are agents of suffering) and then acknowledges, “Everything I see returns to You somehow. Everything I feel returns to You somehow” (they are the setting for divine intimacy). Sufjan Stevens is concerned with questions borne out of silence, suffering, and solitude, questions that sometimes seemingly have no answers. He doesn’t pretend to know the answer to the problem of pain and evil, but he steadily acknowledges his need for healing. He continues to catch thousands of peoples’ attention because of his mysticism and vulnerability, which challenge the culture’s profound disbelief and anxiety (though cynics will always call the tenderhearted among us exhibitionist and self-indulgent, and will therefore find in Sufjan plenty to dismiss). His latest album, Carrie and Lowell, is perhaps his most vulnerable and mystical of all – and, in my opinion, his best.