It’s hard for us to be objective about Sufjan Stevens. His music is the sort that has influenced us, and many like us, in all sorts of ways; hell, we could write theses on the man and his work, given how rich every bit of his output has been so far. Carrie & Lowell is his return to his original folk-driven sound, following electronic detours with the Age of Adz and his Sisyphus project.
It seems objectivity isn’t a priority for Stevens either on this record – hardly surprising, given that it’s named after his mother, recently deceased, and his father. The moment the record starts, it feels as though Stevens is in full confessional and revelatory mode; he has recently opened up about the somewhat turbulent relationship he had with his mother, which is a rather large and obvious window into his work here.
We start to hear the cracks and weaknesses as early as opening track Death With Dignity, in which he delivers lines like “Again I’ve lost my strength completely, oh be near me” and “I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you”. It’s as candid as Sufjan Stevens has ever been, and you don’t need to understand his story to empathise with the helpless feeling of loss.
Mortality, and coming to terms with it, obviously casts a huge shadow over Carrie & Lowell. That’s not to say it ever feels overly funereal – maudlin, perhaps, but never draining. There’s also a tinge of the commemorative in each song, particularly the title track, which seems to mirror Stevens’ own peace with his situation: often in the same breath he exhales thoughts that are nostalgic, resigned, but requited.
As always with Stevens, when the devastation does come, it does so quietly and without melodrama. That’s partly to do with his trademark arrangements: delicate flecks of Americana, soft and uncluttered, that buttress a tone swinging between wistful and matter-of-fact. The latter is quite a sturdy part of Stevens’s oeuvre, and it shows again with talk about cutting arms “cross-hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark” on The Only Thing as strings slowly swirl beneath, being left alone at the video store on Should Have Known Better, or more coarsely on the excellent All Of Me Wants All Of You – “you checked your phone while I masturbated,” the most clinical description of any relationship we’ve heard in recent times.
But of all the things Sufjan Stevens has done, of all the offshoots of eccentricity and accusations of aloofness, there’s no better capsule of his brilliance than the standout track Fourth of July. It tackles the moment we all dread: watching a loved one fade in front of us, realising that a protector once strong and proud has wilted to something so painfully still. Along with Stevens, we fantasise (“what could I have said to raise you from the dead/ oh could I be the sky on the fourth of July?”), we deny (“sitting on the bed with a halo at your head/ was it all a disguise, like junior high?”), and eventually we’re grounded by mundane reality (“Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth/ Do you find it alright?”). And thanks to Stevens sharing the terms of his endearment for his ‘little dove’, his ‘firefly’, his ‘star in the sky’, we’re not only relating to every moment of loss, we’re also privy to a very personal farewell between mother and son. The effect is gut-wrenching.
That’s just one layer in the rather profound depth of this album. Our preternatural affinity for Stevens aside, Carrie & Lowell is undoubtedly one of the richest records of its kind, and the reason this man’s name is so hallowed. Like another massive record about loss this year, this is a journey that confronts emotions uncomfortable and familiar; while mining the aftermath of death, somehow Sufjan Stevens has never sounded more life-affirming than he has on this masterpiece.