Returning to his indie folk roots, Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens’ seventh studio album – is one that will most certainly have you reaching for tissues and thinking up various allergy excuses for your watery eyes. Written after the death of his mother in 2012, the album sees Stevens somehow express the incomprehensibility of his child, particularly life with a bipolar and schizophrenic mother.
Stevens harks back to his childhood, both resentful and forgiving: he kicks off the album with ‘Death With Dignity’, “I forgive you, mother” floating over the twinkling instrumentation, before angelic “ooohs” draw the track to a close. Despite the beauty in Stevens’ songwriting, there’s a brutal honesty to the lyricism. Whilst it’s perhaps clouded by the serene nature of the music, he doesn’t hesitate to refer to his mother as a “tired old mare”, or in ‘Should Have Known Better’, recall tales of being left in a video store at three years old. Sufjan manages to produce tracks just as beautiful as he always does, without sugar-coating the darkness of his childhood. In spite of this, he doesn’t hesitate to swear, or mention masturbation on the album, adding a lightheartedness to it – a suggestion that he’s sticking two fingers up at death and grievance.
Amongst the fantasies and confusions of a young boy in a dysfunctional family, Stevens reminds us of the finality of life on many occasions: despite apparent remorse for his difficult relationship with his mother, he claims “every road leads to an end” and in ‘Fourth of July’ reminds us that “we’re all going to die”. Morbid, sure, but at least he’s using it to make one of the best albums of his career.
Whilst I’m sat here in tears, it seems Sufjan himself is far more accepting of both recent events of his life, and of his childhood. That is for most of the album. ‘The Only Thing’ sees Stevens become totally unapologetically sad, hinting that there are few things in the world that keep him from driving his car into a canyon, or cutting his arm, before questioning, “how do I live with your ghost?”.
Stevens also hints at the confusion in the religious element of his upbringing: his childhood saw his parents switch religions frequently, and, as ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ suggests, he found no comfort in this. The album finishes on quite possibly the saddest note, with ‘Blue Bucket Of Gold’, defeating any hope you had of getting through it without being at least a little teary-eyed. Truly moving, there’s no question as to why many critics have labeled Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens’ best work.
Carrie & Lowell is out now via Asthmatic Kitty Records.