Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Title: Carrie & Lowell
Label: Asthmatic Kitty Records
Release Date: 3/31/15
Reviewer: Ian Zandi
- Death with Dignity
- Should Have Known Better
- All of Me Wants All of You
- Drawn to the Blood
- Fourth of July
- The Only Thing
- Carrie & Lowell
- John My Beloved
- No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
- Blue Bucket of Gold
Academy Award movies such as Schindler’s List, The Hurt Locker, Gone With the Wind are so powerful that they only need to be seen once or twice a lifetime. While it could be listened to more often than annually, Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell abides by the same rules. Though immersing yourself in media without any prior knowledge is often a more enjoyable experience, I feel that this album is an exception to that rule. The backstory of this album is nearly essential for the listeners.
Spending memorable summer trips in Oregon, Sufjan lived with his titular mother and stepfather (Carrie and Lowell respectively). His mother had several problems including alcoholism, schizophrenia, and depression. She would make entrances and exits in young Sufjan’s life often. At times, she would be living homeless. It was only at the end of her life, stricken with cancer, that the mother and son would truly reconnect. After her death in 2012, Sufjan fell into deep depression and self-destruction. This album is the result of him expressing his feelings, reminiscing, and sorting through his pain.
Appropriately, the album opens up with a display of drizzling acoustic guitar while Sufjan admits “I don’t know where to begin…”. He finds his footing on the opening track (“Death With Dignity”) and steadily carries falsetto. He sings as if he is on the verge of tears the entire album, yet, Sufjan seems confident. Nevertheless, in the very same song he claims that he’s got nothing to prove. Where his previous studio album The Age of Adz was a creative and bizarre effort, it seems Sufjan Stevens is only making these songs for therapy. That does not make them any less powerful.
In addition to the “nothing to prove” motif that Sufjan adopted on this album, all of the instruments are kept to a minimum. There is next to no percussion on the entire album. An acoustic guitar seems to be Sufjan Stevens’ only companion in a dark and lonely world (with some small exceptions such as (“Should’ve Known Better”). His loneliness draws him to cry out to God (directly at times) in songs such as “Drawn to the Blood”, “Fourth of July”, “John, My Beloved” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”. The latter track has conjured up some controversy since it was the first savory taste we got of this new album. The interpretation of the song can vary from individual to individual, but I have my personal take on it after knowing the background story.
After his mother’s death, Sufjan soon started imitating some of her alcoholic and self-destructive behaviors in an effort to feel close to her (“The Only Thing”). In “No Shade…”, I believe this song to mean that there is “no shade”, no place to hide, “in the shadow of the cross”, from evidence of Jesus’ suffering. I think this brings Sufjan guilt to the forefront. He realizes that in the drugs and self-harm that he does to cope, he cannot use them to hide from God. There is no escape from Him or His grace. Many biblical characters tried to hide along with their messes but God is all-seeing. There is no shade in the shadow of the cross. The reliance of religion is featured heavily in “The Only Thing” and “John, My Beloved”. In retrospect, they can be likened to his previous hit “To Be Alone With You”. however, these new songs are less catchy and are not made to appeal to the masses. With the last line of the album, he turns to lord and asks to be touched by lightning. I take this as an interpretation that he seeks to be enlightened with the comfort and closure that he can be one with life again.
Overall: Sufjan Stevens has given us his best effort yet. Maybe too good. It is most definitely an album that can be taken apart in many different directions and studied many times (there are numerous Oregon historical references that I had to research). Given the dark themes that this album covers, this is not an album that you are going to listen to with the windows down on a hot summer day. However, that does not make this any less of a perfect album. I cannot find any flaws in this album. Going beyond my personal tastes, I cannot possibly comprehend how anybody could find anything wrong with this record. I think I almost shed some man-tears on my keyboard.
RIYL: Jon Foreman, Fleet Foxes, Elliot Smith, Bon Iver, Conor Oberst