Haunting lyrics with beautiful melodies make 'Carrie & Lowell' a masterpiece

Sufjan Stevens emerges from a five-year hiatus to release a grief-filled yet sublime album.

By Bruno Vernaschi | March 31, 2015

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Eleven tracks of pure, heart-wrenching gold.

Those are the only words I can conjure up for such an album like “Carrie & Lowell,” Sufjan Stevens’ latest masterpiece. Beautiful tunes backed by dark, haunting lyrics are what make this album so incredibly sublime.

More than a decade after capturing my ears and heart with his landmark 2004 album, “Illinois,” Stevens did the impossible and produced one of the most powerful works of art I have ever come across.

It is nearly impossible to fully appreciate “Carrie & Lowell” without understanding its backstory.

The record is properly titled after Stevens’ mother and stepfather, who appear on the cover. Stevens and his siblings grew up in Michigan with his father and stepmother as his mother, Carrie, abandoned the family when he was one year old. She suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcoholism, and appeared in his life sporadically. She met Lowell Brams, who worked in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, and they were married for five years.

Stevens credits Brams with turning him on to music, along with being his biggest fatherly figure. He remains close to him today, as Brams is now the director of Asthmatic Kitty, Stevens’ record company.

These songs focus on Stevens’ relationship with the pair, along with his struggle to deal with the loss of Carrie, who died in 2012 of stomach cancer.

“(‘Carrie & Lowell’ was) 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,” Stevens says in an interview with Pitchfork. “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.”

He touches on drug abuse, suicide, religion and regret as he takes the listener into his own harrowing world filled with grief. From start to end, this album is genius.

Stevens kicks it off with the delicate string melody of “Death with Dignity.” In it, he lays out his true feelings about his mother and the situation he had been dealt through his signature gentle voice. “I don’t know where to begin,” he says. “I lost my strength completely.” He makes the sort of pain he is in clear and sets the scene for the type of tracks that will follow. A powerful keyboard transition leads us into, “I forgive you, mother / I can hear you and I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end.”

Although I’m crazy about the following track, “Should Have Known Better,” (and the whole album, in case you can’t yet tell), which is one of two singles, no song is quite as melancholy as “Fourth of July.” The goal of the song, it seems, is for Stevens to convey a hypothetical conversation with his dying mother, which changes speaker from stanza to stanza. The devastating back-and-forth is filled with terms of endearment like, “Did you get enough love, my little dove? / Why do you cry? / I’m sorry I left / But it was for the best,” in one stanza, alluding that his mother is speaking, followed by, “The hospital asked, ‘Should the body be cast?’ / Before I say goodbye / My star in the sky.” This poetic masterpiece is one to make me miss my own mother, and I saw her yesterday.

“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is, in my opinion, the greatest song on the record — one that could very well blow 2004’s “Chicago” out of the water. The release of this track as a single is perfect. It’s a big reason why I was so intrigued by the album and its story when my friends insisted I listen to it last month. This is a difficult piece to interpret and then form into words, because it is so intense and consequential. In it, Stevens talks about his drug abuse following the death of his mother, as he says, “I search for the capsule I lost” and that he’s “chasing the dragon.”

When I first got my hands on the single, Stevens caught me off-guard by saying, “Fuck me, I’m falling apart” towards the end. I didn’t think the line, or at least the way it was delivered, was fitting to the song. However, after way too many listens, I now see its importance, and I strongly feel it’s the most important part of the whole song and maybe the whole album. It is when Stevens is realizing and accepting that he is killing himself through his drug abuse and the way he is dealing with his demons, and the wording is nothing short of perfect.

Stevens told Pitchfork, “In lieu of (Carrie’s) death, I felt a desire to be with her, so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and fucking around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her.”

This painful album is truly more than just a collection of songs. It’s a message told through the suffering of one of the most brilliant artists of our generation.

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