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On the surface, “Carrie & Lowell” is Sufjan Stevens’s simplest album yet. Compared to the extravagant behemoths that were “Michigan” and “Illinois,” “Carrie & Lowell” is much more autobiographical and brooding. Certainly, the album’s subject matter contributes to this shift; Stevens’s mother Carrie, who passed away in 2012, is a recurring, almost ubiquitous figure throughout the album’s 11 tracks. Forgoing the intricate, symphonic compositions of some of his earlier work, Stevens alternatingly aims forgiveness and bitterness at his mother’s ghost on “Carrie & Lowell” through some of the barest lyrics and instrumentation he has ever used.
Despite its instrumental sparseness and narrowed scope, “Carrie & Lowell” is not a simple album to digest. The emotional weight of the album alone is staggering; for all of Stevens’s expert lyricism, it feels as if the songs on “Carrie & Lowell” are straining to convey his often paradoxical feelings, touching on faint memories and vignettes that serve as windows into his childhood. On “Eugene,” Stevens croons, “A lemon yogurt, remember I pulled at your shirt / I dropped the ashtray on the floor / I just wanted to be near you.” These fleeting images are the fiber of “Carrie & Lowell,” and Stevens stitches them into mosaics of emotions. It’s this creation’s alluring, breathing, and, above all, convincing quality that provides a humble yet striking setting for “Carrie & Lowell.”
Woven into this fabric, any emotional wound can be fatal, and “Carrie & Lowell” is Stevens going straight for the heart. It’s an exhausting album, not for the length of its tracklist but for its stunning sincerity—the type of unflinching directness that is needed to make an autobiographical album about family convincing. Lyrically, the most familiar track on the album is the opening “Death with Dignity,” which features characteristically imagistic descriptions in heart-wrenching detail: “Your apparition passes through me in the willows / Five red hens, you’ll never see us again.” Even the repetitive “We’re all gonna die” chorus of “Fourth of July” fits naturally into the album’s sincere emotional palette; thoughts that Stevens can’t fight from his head appear regularly, even stubbornly, throughout the work.
Despite the directness of the album, Stevens rarely sounds sure on “Carrie & Lowell.” The tumultuous collection is a changing self-examination for Stevens, and the constantly shifting voices and emotions in the album are evidence of a man with more to say than he can share. Stevens quotes his mother throughout “Carrie & Lowell,” particularly through the development of “Should Have Known Better,” one of the rare moments of optimism on the album. “Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing / the breakers in the bar, / the neighbors greeting,” he echoes in the words of Carrie, before musing, “My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, / illumination.” Lines like these are among the most powerful on the album; as memories of past conversations materialize in the music, it is painfully obvious that Stevens is playing both parts.
Though comparing “Carrie & Lowell” to anything from Stevens’s previous discography is a little bit like comparing a travel guide to a eulogy, there are elements that persist through his latest album, including masterful composition, arcane references to mythology, and a strong connection with Christianity. Stevens spends much of the album’s 45 minutes searching for forgiveness, in turn from his mother and from God. The death of a loved one can easily shake one’s faith, and Stevens accordingly repeatedly appeals to to God for advice and comfort as well as clemency. “John My Beloved,” almost hymn-like in its contemplative repentance, ends with a desperate plea: “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me / From fossils that follow my head / There’s only a shadow of me / In a matter of speaking, I’m dead.”
“Carrie & Lowell” is in many ways an homage to a lost mother, but it ultimately tells the story of an internal struggle; its recurring mentions of religion and guilt ensure that no moment on the album takes place outside of Stevens’s head. “This is not my art project; this is my life,” Stevens professed in an interview with Pitchfork, and in the context of his eclectic discography—which includes voluminous Christmas albums, albums dedicated to states, and even a hip-hop project—the distinction is an important one to make. “Carrie & Lowell” is an incredibly intimate album, more so for its thematic elements than for its sparse instrumentation or its bedroom production. In this intimacy, Stevens is freer to speak than ever before.
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