Review: Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

For the first time in his cabaret of a career, Sufjan Stevens has nowhere to hide.

opinion byZACHARY BERNSTEIN < @znbernstein >

“Is it real or a fable?” Sufjan Stevens muses on the benedictory “Death With Dignity,” the opening track from his seventh proper studio album Carrie & Lowell. Fans of Stevens’ work have been asking that same question for years. His 2005 magnum opus Illinois and 2003’s similarly conceived Michigan were stunning works of storytelling and musicality – vivacious syntheses of distinctly American narratives with lushly orchestrated folk, jazz, and indie pop. They were also beautiful deceptions – hiding behind historical antiheroes and quirky namedrops, Stevens offered deeply confessional stories under the guise of a seriocomic Schoolhouse Indie Rock mentality. On the masterful Carrie & Lowell, gone are the paragraph-long song titles of his earlier work and the electronic fake-outs of 2010’s The Age of Adz - for the first time in his cabaret of a career, Stevens has nowhere to hide. Leave it to Sufjan Stevens to discover a new way to break our hearts, simply by being himself.

Carrie & Lowell is named for Sufjan Stevens’ mother and stepfather – their Oregon family summers of Stevens’ childhood and the alcoholic, bipolar Carrie’s death in 2012 comprise the record’s subject matter. Stevens has always grappled with the Big Topics – God, family, love, and death – but he imbues his songwriting with such vivid detail so as to render such universal dilemmas far more ordinary. On Carrie & Lowell, these details originate in Stevens’ own memory – the inability of Lowell to pronounce his name on “Eugene,” the incident in which his mentally troubled mother abandoned a four-year-old Sufjan in a video store on “Should Have Known Better.” These haunting anecdotes make Carrie & Lowell consistently compelling and elevate the storytelling from murky religious contemplation to relatable human struggle. Stevens has finally revealed himself to be the person in his first-person pieces, and his songwriting lifts itself to new heights for that admission.

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Stevens comes neither to bury his mother, nor to praise her, but rather to disentangle the nostalgia, bitterness, and love dwelling amongst his childhood memories. “How do I live with your ghost?” he asks simply on “The Only Thing.” He recounts a deathbed conversation with his mother on “Fourth of July,” exploring her perspective as she asks, “Did you get enough love, my little dove? Why do you cry? / And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right.” In a recent Pitchfork interview, Stevens expressed his belief that respect is not a prerequisite for feelings of love, and that emotional dissonance becomes the central conflict of the album as Stevens wrestles with his unresolved feelings towards a mother who abandoned his family, battled considerable demons, and loved him still amongst all of the tumult.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” sang the narrator on Illinois’ centerpiece “Chicago,” but that notion really hits home on Carrie & Lowell. For Stevens, this record is a chronicle of painful mistakes unearthed and forgiven – his mother’s and his stepfather’s, and of equal importance, his own. “The Only Thing” contemplates suicide and abandonment of all responsibility, but with enough narrative ambiguity such that the speaker remains unclear – mother and son reveal their own similarly manic tendencies. Stevens completely falls to pieces on the penultimate “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross,” as he concedes that his religious convictions cannot offer him clear guidance in his grief. Carrie & Lowell grows particularly bleak in its final third, as the mythological and Biblical references pile up on “John My Beloved” and “Blue Bucket of Gold.” Be forewarned - this is a challenging record of raw and visceral emotions, and its consistency of tempo and even-keeled volume makes Stevens’ pain all the more heartbreaking and unsettling.

Indeed, the naked wounds of Carrie & Lowell would not be half as striking without the proper musical accompaniment. Hallelujah, this album is gorgeous. Eleven tracks of delicately finger-picked mandolin and banjo, intricate guitar lines, and ghostly piano lend Stevens’ memories a sonic sepiatone that perfectly complements the intimate storytelling. Upon first listen, the melodies often resemble each other, but as if on purpose to craft a prevailingly somber mood. The record rewards repeated listens, however, as the precious nuances begin to emerge – the shimmering, atmospheric coda to “Drawn to the Blood,” Stevens’ flip into a slightly higher falsetto register imitating his mother’s voice on “Fourth of July,” the deceptively panoramic epic quality of the title track. Stevens’ voice has never sounded better – fifteen years into his career, he has retained his youthful, chirping whisper, but now with a greater fragility that cracks at just the right moments. The production is immaculate, every strum and bend of the guitar strings crystalline as if Stevens were playing in the corner of the room. It is perfectly fitting that Stevens’ most lyrically stark work is also his least instrumentally adorned.

Initially, I found it impossible to understand why Sufjan Stevens chose not to release this album during the winter. Its lilting, melancholy melodies effortlessly evoke early morning snowfall and prematurely dark nights huddled indoors. My opinion changed when I listened to Carrie & Lowell for the first time on a covered bridge in Central Park as the city finally emerged from its somber hibernation. As I watched the afternoon sun dance across the skyscrapers and New Yorkers enjoying the first whispers of vernal air, I realized that this record is ideally suited for the springtime – a moment of rebirth and renewal.  After all, Stevens sings “Mother, I forgive you,” on the very first track, indicating that the emotional excavation that follows will be painful, but nonetheless cathartic. Even as Stevens examines his grief on “Should Have Known Better,” there are moments of joy, as he marvels with a change from minor to major, “my brother had a daughter/the beauty that she brings, illumination.” Stevens’ latest effort illustrates that the indie whiz-kid has grown even more adept with age at affirming the everyday beauty of life even amidst the bleakest of hours. “What is that song you sing for the dead?” Stevens asks. Over the course of this sublime album, Stevens teasingly never fully answers his own question – it may be a song cycle about the dead, but even at its most funereal, Carrie & Lowell is undeniably for the living. A