CARRIE & LOWELL - SUFJAN STEVENS
LCM ALBUM OF THE MONTH - NOVEMBER 2016
Release Date: 31st March, 2015
Genre: Indie rock, Indie folk
Location: Brooklyn, New York. USA
Record Label: Asthmatic Kitty Records
I would like to start with a confession, although this album was released last year, I have been wanting to do an LCM review for a long while now. In my defence so many friends were telling me how good this album was, but I only listened to it for the first time earlier this summer. I'm pleased to report it's a very thought provoking (although dark at times), reflective album and one which certainly lives up to its high praise. It has tremendous depth and heartfelt feeling. Small candid, elegant moments, sometimes raw which reach for the heart, coupled with wonderfully sparse and intimate soundscapes. 'Carrie & Lowell' is the seventh studio album by American musician Sufjan Stevens. Unlike Sufjan's previous studio album, the electronic 'The Age of Adz', Carrie & Lowell is sparsely instrumental and marks a return to his indie folk roots. The album was released to great critical acclaim, with many critics calling it Sufjan's best. It was widely acknowledged as one of the best albums of 2015. HMV named it the best album of 2015, while in reached second place in The Guardian "Album of the Year" list.
The songs were inspired by the 2012 death of his mother Carrie from cancer and the family trips they took to Oregon in Sufjan's childhood. 'Carrie & Lowell' is all about coming to terms with her passing and with his unorthodox upbringing. A form of catharsis. Sufjan's mother, who suffered from depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse, abandoned him when he was seven years old. According to Sufjan, recording the album helped him provide closure. The album title also refers his stepfather, Lowell Brams, who was married to Carrie for five years and who helped him co-found his record company 'Asthmatic Kitty'.
The songs explore childhood, family, grief, depression, loneliness, faith, and rebirth in direct and unflinching language that matches the scaled-back instrumentation. There are also Biblical references and references to mythology. The lyrics here are masterful and carefully constructed and the music is as well. Sufjan is joined by Laura Veirs, Sean Carey, Thomas Bartlett and others, but they sound like ghosts in the room around his carefully curated soundscapes, compositions that tastefully blend acoustic and electronic elements that grow deeper with each listen.
The album was produced by Thomas Bartlett, known as Doveman, a musician and friend of Sufjan who had recently lost a brother to cancer. On Bartlett's production part, Stevens said, "Thomas took all these sketches and made sense of it all. He called me out on my bullshit. He said: 'These are your songs. This is your record.' He was ruthless." In the same interview, on the emotions in the album's recording process, Stevens said: "I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it. But the writing and recording wasn’t the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness. In the past my work had a real reciprocity of resources – I would put something in and get something from it. But not this time."
The album begins with the very tender and personal 'Death With Dignity' "I forgive you mother, I can hear you and I long to be near you. But every road lets to an end. Your apparition passes through me in the willows. Five red hens - you'll never see again." Feeling like a black shroud is enveloping him and being frightened by his own empty feelings in 'Should Have Known Better' Sufjan remembers being forgotten at a video store aged “three, maybe four”. He then discusses in contrast the beauty and illumination that his niece brings him. "I should have wrote a letter, explaining what I feel, that empty feeling."
The reflection continues with 'All Of Me Wants All Of You' "Saw myself on Spencer's Butte. Landscape changed my point of view. Revelation may come true....now all of me thinks less of you". Full of symbolism 'Drawn To The Blood' continues the reflective theme, trying to come to terms with his mother's death 'For my prayer has always been love. What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?' 'Eugene' mentions the summer trips to Oregon that Sufjan made (between the ages of five and eight) with Carrie, Lowell and his brother. Constantly echoing that he wants to be near to his mother. "Fourth Of July" is a tender song about Carrie's death and it is filled with terms of endearment including "my little hawk", "my little dove" and "my firefly". He questions about how he can raise her from the dead and then make the most of his own life. Before he ends the song by repeating, soberly, "We're all gonna die.". The beautiful but deep and dark 'The Only Things' discussing thoughts of suicide and self abuse. Full of metaphors from mythology the title track 'Carrie & Lowell' is full of revelations. There is the suggestion that someone – can it be Carrie? – breaks Sufjan's arm. All these horrors are delivered so melodically, with such a sweet and deft, with his whisper double-tracked, they almost pass unnoticed. Did you really hear that? You have to back up just to make sure.
Sufjan is known for his superb deep and meaningful lyric writing and 'John My Beloved' is a wonderful showcase example. It's very sad and desolate but intensely beautiful as the same time. "So can be pretend sweetly before the mystery ends? I am a man with a heart that offends, with it's lonely and greedy demands. There is only a shadow of me in a manner of speaking I'm dead'.
In 'No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross' he sings, in falsetto, "F*ck me, I'm falling apart," and it is maybe the barest, raw and most honest declaration you'll ever hear on an album. The album end with the 'Blue Bucket Of Gold' seeking understanding and redemption for a higher source.