Loss can alter a person. Whether it’s reinvention, recollection, or flat-out despair that hits the hardest, the death of a loved one often times has a profound effect on an individual. In the case of Sufjan Stevens, the feelings resulting from his mother’s death in 2012 became the creative fuel for Carrie & Lowell, his most masterfully put-together musical release to date. However, this claim does not come without its irony. The album, an emotionally-baring open-book chapter of Sufjan’s personal life, is also the artist at his most torn-apart.
Detailing childhood feelings and the difficult relationship he had with his late mother, Sufjan lays out his experiences without expectation, covering a wide spectrum of human emotion. Struggling with alcoholism and bipolar disorder before her untimely death to stomach cancer in 2012, Sufjan’s mother Carrie (along with his stepfather Lowell, who now works at the label that put out this very record) make up the lyrical content of the album.
Lyrically, Carrie & Lowell is weighty and straight-forward, Sufjan delivering his songs like pages torn from an old journal. His themes are primarily very dark, touching on acceptance, “nothing can be changed / the past is still the past, the bridge to nowhere” (“Should Have Known Better”), death and inevitability, “we’re all gonna die” (“Fourth of July”), sorrow, helplessness, “Do I care if I despise this? Nothing else matters, I know / In a veil of great disguises; how do I live with your ghost?” (“The Only Thing”). Emotionally challenging, infinitely personal, and absent of all pretense, Carrie & Lowell contains Sufjan’s most affecting writing to date.
And there is something to be said about a man who’s musical career spans minimalist acoustic folk (Seven Swans), grand orchestral compositions (Illinois), and even an album augmented by heavy electronic influence (The Age of Adz). On a basic level, Carrie & Lowell appears to be the full-circle return to the sparse folk of Sufjan’s earliest material. But the album is not without maturation. The songs make wonderful use of Sufjan’s skillful acoustic melodies and the haunting coo of his signature vocal style, but now do so with the careful addition of various sonic backdrops. Pulsing synths, distant ambient noise, and ethereal tones give the songs a ghostly uneasiness that perfectly encapsulates the album’s powerful and devastating narrative line.
Generally speaking, it’s impossible not to feel something when listening to Carrie & Lowell. Everything about it—the writing, themes, arrangements, melodies, harmonies, and the unassuming personal nature of the album as a whole—captures the artist in his darkest hour, and subsequently at his best, musically.