For over a decade, Sufjan Stevens has given the world some of the most beautiful pieces of music of the modern era. In terms of consistency, he is easily ranked up there with the likes of other modern artists like Kanye West, Death Grips, Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead, or Arcade Fire. However, it’s been almost five years since his last LP, The Age of Adz. While he’s released Christmas album, worked with the likes of The Roots and The National, and even released a hip-hop album as a member of the group Sisyphus, people have been craving a new studio album for years. With this new release, Sufjan goes back to his folk roots for a touching tribute to his late mother, Carrie (who the album is named after along with Stevens’ stepfather Lowell, who started Asthmatic Kitty Record with Stevens).
As detailed in the lyrics, Stevens has had a complicated relationship with his mother. His siblings and him were abandoned by her when Sufjan was only “three, maybe four” in a video store, and since then has had a disconnect with his mother, who suffered from alcoholism, depression and schizophrenia. He explains this disconnect in an interview with Pitchfork: “I had to construct some kind of narrative, so I’ve always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie, because I have such few lived memories of my experience with her. There’s such a discrepancy between my time and relationship with her, and my desire to know her and be with her.”
Throughout the album, we see Sufjan’s world through a number of perspectives. We see his time with his mother and stepfather as a child, where he spent his summers between the ages of 5 and 8 in Oregon with them as seen in the song ‘Carrie and Lowell’ (“Carrie and Lowell / Such a long time ago / Like a dead horse / Meadowlark drive your arrow”). In ‘Fourth of July’ Sufjan goes back and forth between singing from the perspective of himself and his mother as she knows her death is imminent and tries to tell Sufjan everything will be okay, as eventually everyone dies, even if they don’t want to (“Well you do enough talk / My little hawk, why do you cry? / Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn? / Or the Fourth of July? / We’re all gonna die”). And in the album’s lead single, ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’, he grieves over his dead mother in self-destructive ways (“Fuck me I’m falling apart.”)
In order to put more focus on the songwriting, Sufjan took a more minimal approach in the production, as most songs are just an acoustic guitar, a piano, or both. The album is most akin to his debut A Sun Came or Seven Swans, but even then those albums feature more variety in terms of instrumentation, which isn’t a knock at Carrie & Lowell as the album would fall apart due to the contrast in subject matter and production. However, the instrumentation on this album is breath-taking as it perfectly matches his quiet and somber voice.
I forgive you, mother, I can hear you
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end
Yes every road leads to an end
Your apparition passes through me in the willows
Five red hens – you’ll never see us again
You’ll never see us again
– “Death with Dignity”
If I had to describe the album in two words, I’d describe it as “beautifully depressing.” The album seems to be a cathartic one for Stevens as he’s found acceptance in the death of his mother and the role she played in his life growing up. He comes to the conclusion in the album’s intro (the album is non-chronological, as it goes back and forth between different times in Sufjan’s life) that while his mother may not have been around in his life all that much, he knows why she was not able to and longs for the few memories he’s had of her.
“With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe. It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”