In Brief: Though the music remains mellow and reserved throughout, Sufjan’s attempts to make sense of his troubled childhood in the wake of his mother’s death can at times be visceral, even shocking. It’s a departure from the days of classic Sufjan when geography and history played the starring roles, but these elements are still there, serving as the backdrop for an album that, under different circumstances, could have simply been called “Oregon”.
The death of a parent can be really hard on a songwriter. Hell, it’s hard on anybody. But when you make a living writing about your feelings, and you’re the type of person who has to get your feelings out of your system and can’t believably fake that things are A-OK, the creative outlet can be both a blessing and a curse. Great records have no doubt come from that time of personal grief in an artist’s life. But it can become a bit surreal for the artist when those songs connect with an audience, to the point where they’re more or less expected to relive those very personal moments of grief on stage for the rest of their career. Time will tell what sort of effect this has on Sufjan Stevens, whose mother passed away during the four-plus years between his last significant work, 2010’s The Age of Adz, and the release of his new album, Carrie & Lowell, which is largely about childhood memories of his mother and stepfather and the summers they spent together in Oregon, and his attempts as an adult to cope with the loss of a woman he was only starting to get to know and truly understand.
Now if you’re like me and you’ve been following Sufjan since his heyday in the mid-2000s, you should probably have known before this record came out that you couldn’t expect it to be like his past work. The Age of Adz was already a massive shock to the system for anyone expecting the long-winded geographic stories, playful marching band cadences, and bizarro time signatures that freely romped around in the landscapes of Michigan and Illinois. Those are two of my favorite albums of all time (the latter being my absolute, undisputed, favorite record made by anyone ever), so at times it can be hard for me to let go and give Sufjan the freedom to do something different. But then I remember that my introduction to the man was through Seven Swans, a comparatively mellower and less-arrangement heavy folk/rock type record that came out in between those two. Its sparser sound is the go-to comparison for Carrie & Lowell, and there’s even a bit of the faith-based lyricism that was so prevalent on that record, though in a decidedly different context. But this new record isn’t really concerned with bountiful instrumentation (his trusty banjo sits most of this one out, and there are no massive horn sections or wild, trilling woodwinds to be heard), or even really with pushing artistic boundaries. Simple piano and finger-picked acoustic guitar are the relaxed backdrop for most of these songs, and they do occasionally bring in some light percussion or backing vocals to brighten the mood, but for the most part it wouldn’t have been appropriate for these songs to be upbeat or heavily arranged. Consequently, you’re not going to hear a whole lot of musical variance on the surface; ultimately I think most of the songs have some clearly distinguishing characteristic that keeps the entire record from sounding like carbon copies of the same idea, but due to the overall laid-back pace of it, I do tend to get lost somewhere in its second half if I’m not paying really close attention. At the same time, it’s not a thoroughly “acoustic” album, as there are these little ambient passages linking several of the songs that give them an otherworldly sort of character, filling in the gaps where Sufjan’s lyrics couldn’t describe what he was feeling as he looked into the grim abyss of his mother’s sharp decline and sudden absence from the mortal coil. It’s a cathartic record, but it’s often not a comfortable one to listen to.
If I were to mine Sufjan’s past discography for songs that I think best reflect the mood of this record, I’d recommend getting yourself into the right frame of mind by reviewing Michigan‘s “Romulus” and “Holland”, Seven Swans‘ “The Dress Looks Nice on You” and “To Be Alone with You”, and Illinois‘s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “The Seer’s Tower”. Maybe even The Age of Adz‘s “Futile Devices”. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily correlate (except for “Romulus” and “The Seer’s Tower”, probably his most straightforward songs about his mother from before this record) but these are all relatively downbeat, and somewhat haunting tunes, though a few are gently life-affirming, and they give you a sense of the quiet, nervous grace that Sufjan maintains throughout this record. The most surprising moments come from the lyrics, not so much the music, as Sufjan isn’t shy about admitting to some of the self-destructive tendencies that he dealt with as he grieved, and he clearly isn’t concerned with whether we as an audience view his experience as “the right way” to go about working through our own sorrows. He’s much more concerned with what actually happened than what should have happened, and those who go into an album expecting an artist to be a “role model” or somehow correlate an honest expression of their faith (which crops up here from time to time) with a morality play on how one’s life should be lived will probably not find this record to be terribly encouraging. I personally applaud the bravery inherent in admitting to some of these painful truths… although if I had known Sufjan personally while some of this stuff was going I certainly would have advised him to seek some sort of professional help, because the man was clearly on the brink of total despair at a few points. If that sort of thing could be a trigger for you due to personal stuff you’re going through or have been through, now might not be the best time to give this one a listen, but then again, some of us find great comfort in knowing we’re not the only human beings to struggle with alcoholism or suicidal thoughts or just plain wondering where the heck God is in the middle of it all. It’s harrowing subject matter at times, and there’s an unspoken expectation that the audience is going to have to show some maturity to get through this one without writing it off as irresponsible, immoral, or otherwise misguided. It’s not my favorite Sufjan album, but I can see why it’s been getting near-unanimous critical praise. It’s one of those records where a sensible person has to appreciate the bravery and the naked honesty that went into making it.
1. Death with Dignity
Those who have waited nearly nine years to hear “classic Sufjan” again will find the nimbly plucked guitar strings and the simple piano melody of this song to be a breath of fresh air. His fragile vocals, beautifully weaving in and out of falsetto, are as compelling as ever, and despite this song pulling us into the story of his mother’s passing and his subsequent morning, there’s a sense of openness and wonder to the song, as if someone had opened all of the windows on a sunny day and let a quiet breeze blow through what used to be a dark, stuffy house. Though Sufjan grapples with the notion of finding a graceful way to say goodbye when the decline of her health has been so messy and painful and protracted, there’s an overriding sense of love and gratitude despite the awkward relationship between the two of them. Few songwriters could refer to a dying woman as a “Tired old mare, with the wind in your hair” and have it sound so genuinely affectionate. I quite nearly get choked up in the last verse when he sings “I forgive you mother/I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end.” He leaves a space after the final verse of this song for a reverent chorus of his wordless vocals, humming away into the ether, that serves as a bridge into the next track. This reminds me a great deal of some of the contemplative outros heard on quieter tracks from his two “state albums”, but on this album these little ambient codas become a character unto themselves, like a response from a disembodied spirit escaping into the ether.
2. Should Have Known Better
This track keeps up a pace similar to the last song, sparse yet brisk, as a sense of regret settles into a minor-key melody. Though Sufjan’s vocals barely rise above a whisper for the first half of it, I’m captivated right away by the colorful twists and turns. His mixed feelings over the touch-and-go relationship he had with his mother since his childhood well up here, as he remembers being very young and being abandoned at the video store, which is an interesting thing to remember in light of his song “Romulus” and its verse about being looked after by their grandfather and watching a heck of a lot of VHS tapes – perhaps he hoped he’d see her again when they stopped off to return the rentals? This is contrasted with his attempts to communicate with her as an adult, where he realizes he’s been the one keeping the relationship at a distance, wanting to call her or write a letter to explain his feelings, but stopping short of doing so and then eventually realizing he’s barely got any time left to work things out. The song meanders its way through obscure references to Oregon geography and other various mementos of the precious time they were able to spend together, and I think it stumbles across a bit of hope in its second half, when he brings in keyboards, a bit of light percussion and a slightly subdued version of the “exuberant makeshift choir” he’s employed more heavily on other albums. Oh yeah, and his trusty banjo shows up again. That’s always a plus! Here he finds the courage to continue on despite his despair, taking comfort in the way life goes on around him, particularly with the birth of his brother’s daughter. At times the song feels all over the place in terms of the moods and experiences he’s trying to pull together, but then that’s fitting for a man trying to cobble together reasons to feel at peace about his life in the midst of great turmoil.
3. All of Me Wants All of You
Despite the similar instrumentation on most of this album’s tracks, the syncopated guitar strumming in this song is so definitive that it immediately stands out as one of those songs you can hear once and not easily forget. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy or terribly comforting song to listen to, as this is when the self-destructive tendencies begin to surface. Sufjan was apparently in some sort of a relationship during the time period this song covers, but he wasn’t really letting the person in, just sort of off brooding by himself, interacting with his lover like two ships passing in the night. Right there in the first verse, things reach a “too much information” level of ugliness as he admits, “You checked your texts while I masturbated.” While my initial reaction was “Jeez man, I really didn’t need to know that about you”, I think it fits into the overall theme of wanting a deeper relationship but being too afraid of your own feelings (or perhaps just too self-absorbed) to really pursue it. He’s taking the easy way out with his lover here; in the previous song he regretted taking the easy way out with his mother.
4. Drawn to the Blood
On the flipside, this seems to be the one song that I keep forgetting about. Something about its staccato guitar strumming that doesn’t really change dynamics throughout a relatively short song makes it just sort of lazily float on by me. There isn’t a strong sense of rhythm to it, so the verses and refrain just sort of roll on lazily into one another until the song abruptly segues into another one of those serene ambient passages. I get the sense that Sufjan’s trying to confront his self-destructive tendencies here, realizing that even though he wants love and family and community and all those good things, he has this weird obsession with pain and suffering and discord that leads to angry confrontations with people and perhaps even bouts of self-harm. The questions at the end of the song are poignant ones – “What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?” He’s turning into a man he doesn’t recognize. I just wish the song did more to give these questions to gravity that they deserve.
The shortest song on the album – barely two and a half minutes – rewinds the story a bit to revisit fond memories of those summers Sufjan spent in Oregon with his mother and stepfather. He remembers the man kindly, through little vignettes like being taught how to swim and the guy fumbling to pronounce his name right (and deciding to call him “Subaru”). The two apparently still have a good relationship as adults despite mom being in and out of the picture, and I suppose it’s a nice break from the usual stories probably millions of other people have about deadbeat dads taking off and leaving moms to run the entire show by themselves. Parts of the song do still seem to be addressed to his mother, as if he wishes he could go back and insert her into those happy memories that she wasn’t fully present for. Without warning, it takes an incredibly dark turn in the final verse: “What’s left is only bittersweet/For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me/Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away/What’s the point of singing songs/If they’ll never even hear you?” It’s notable that this is the first track that ends without an instrumental coda. I took those to represent some sort of peace and acceptance, and here there is none.
6. Fourth of July
A looped melody of muted piano, interrupted occasionally by a dark waves of electronic sound, serves as the backdrop for an almost uncomfortably intimate conversation between Sufjan and his mother that took place as she lay on her deathbed. The song is full of odd, but affectionate nicknames that the two came up with for each other – “My firefly”, “My little hawk”, “My little loon”, etc. I can almost picture it as a slow, dramatic film, with the scene flashing back to innocent childhood memories of the mother pointing out various birds to her young son as they take a quiet walk in the park, purposefully contrasting it with the cold hospital room in the present day just to punch the viewer straight in the gut. I can imagine there being “happy tears” as she uses her final breath to exhort him, “Make the most of your life while it is rife, while it is right”. Still, Sufjan walks away shattered by the suddenness with which she went from a living, breathing soul to a cold corpse, with the hospital asking him questions about how he wanted the body to be disposed of. His mantra is far from a comforting one: “We’re all gonna die”.
7. The Only Thing
You wouldn’t know it from the comparatively bright, major-key melody, but Sufjan’s gone pretty far down the spiral here. He finds himself contemplating what would happen if he were to just go ahead and let his car plow through the guardrail and into the canyon below, or slit his arms open and fade away in the comfort of a warm bath. These are chilling thoughts, and it makes for one of those moments when I wish Sufjan were telling tall tales, but this is how he really felt in processing his mother’s death, being reminded of her by every small and seemingly innocent thing that crossed his path in those days. While this might be the most harrowing lyric on the album, it’s also filled with allusions to religion and mythology, making it clear that faith and imagination are among the few things left keeping him interested in turning that page and seeing what awaits in the next chapter of his life. That puts an interesting spin on the end of the song, when he wonders if he should tear our his own eyes and heart to avoid seeing and feeling those thoughts that remind him of her, possibly alluding to Jesus’ words from the Bible saying that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out? Is it a sin to miss someone and to feel despair over their passing? I don’t think so, but the maelstrom of guilt he seems to have been caught up in here tells me he might have thought otherwise.
8. Carrie & Lowell
Sonically, this track will probably be the most comforting to those who miss the old Sufjan. The banjo is most prominent here, and it’s got a brisk and easygoing melody, with lyrics that on the surface, seem to be rife with nostalgia. Looking deeper into the lyrics, though, I wonder if all of the memories of his mother and stepfather shared here are specifically warm ones, as he remembers things he was scared of as a little child (even innocent things like driving across a covered bridge), and possibly alludes to his mother dealing with mental illness and/or substance abuse. As with many songs on this album, the words jump back and forth between literal and figurative, and the narrative isn’t necessarily linear. It’s like going through a scrapbook, where the old, sepia-toned images have a warm, fuzzy feeling to them, but the pictures may bring back less-than-happy memories of the life that happened in between when the subjects weren’t in front of a camera.
9. John My Beloved
This has been one of the trickiest songs on the album for me to untangle. It’s based on a slow, repetitive piano melody that feels like it’s been dulled intentionally, perhaps by dampening the piano strings – this contrasts nicely with the “clear” piano melody that comes in later, but since it’s so methodical and unwavering throughout the song, it gets a bit tedious. The lyrics may be the most densely packed with religious imagery out of any track on the album, though it’s not so much a straightforward declaration of faith like the material on Seven Swans, even though he does seem to liken himself to John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, and use this as a metaphor for some sort of a present-day relationship. Interpretations will vary widely. What’s most clear is that he’s fixated on his own mortality, as if a part of him has already been buried beneath the dirt and the fossils that now cover his mother’s body. There’s a lot to dig into and I think it’s a fascinating piece of songwriting even if it’s not so thrilling for me musically. But the repeated lyric, “In a manner of speaking, I’m dead” sticks out like a sore thumb, because Sufjan doesn’t sing it the way he wrote it – it sounds more like “In a matter of speaking”, which to my ears, sounds as glaring as it does when someone says “irregardless”. As far as I can tell, this may have been pointed out to him and corrected in the lyric sheet after the fact.
10. No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
A lot of the tracks on this album have that “demo” sort of aura to them – even if there’s overdubbing and other production tricks applied after the fact, you can still hear the hiss of the tape or the dull hum of the world around Sufjan in the background. This song feels most like that, almost as if it’s an early Iron & Wine song. Normally I’m not a huge fan of that sound, but it gives us the feeling of this track being recorded in the moment and left as it was for fear of tainting the experience with further tinkering. As fragile as the subject matter is, it makes sense. As much as Sufjan has alluded to still ascribing to the Christian faith throughout this album, and still finding some solace in it, this is a very raw admission that sometimes the comfort he seeks from it just doesn’t appear to be there. His wispy voice and a lone guitar are all that’s needed to convey that sense of being at the end of his metaphysical rope, culminating in what might be the least comforting line on the entire record: “There’s blood on this blade/F*ck me, I’m falling apart”. I got over the shock of Sufjan dropping the F-bomb five years ago, thanks to “I want to be well”, but where that song was defiant in its determination to get the heck over whatever was ailing him, this song ‘s frankness makes it easy to glimpse the sheer depths of his sorrow. Obviously he got better, at least to some extent, or this album would have never happened and there would be a tragic obituary and probably an ill-conceived tribute album in its place. Hard as these words are to hear, it’s meaningful to me that a man could slip this far down into that dark well and still live to tell the tale, and still hold fast to his faith in that darkness.
11. Blue Bucket of Gold
the album’s final track is another slow piano piece, again not terribly thrilling at first, but give it time and it reveals a subtle beauty. Sufjan refers to the mythical Blue Bucket Mine that was said to exist in Oregon but that no one ever found, using it as a metaphor the wealth of a meaningful relationship with – well, you fill in the blank here: His mother? His lover? God? Any friend who will dare to walk with him on this dark road to recovery? The fear of abandonment still follows him into adulthood, and I can feel that aching loneliness in how the song seems to reach for a resolution but never find one. Rather than sum things up and bring the album to a definitive conclusion, there’s one last instrumental coda to take us out. As the guitar and piano tremble with anticipation and one final ghostly hum washes over us, I can picture the Oregon seashore on a grey, foggy day, the turbulent waves taking his mother’s ashes out to sea as Sufjan and a scattered few friends and family members say goodbye. That may not be how it actually happened, but in any event, it’s pretty and it’s heartbreaking and it offers a space for peaceful contemplation even though we know the story isn’t neatly wrapped up and the wounds haven’t fully healed yet.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Death with Dignity $1.75
Should Have Known Better $2
All of Me Wants All of You $1.25
Drawn to the Blood $.50
Fourth of July $1.75
The Only Thing $1
Carrie & Lowell $1.25
John My Beloved $.75
No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross $1
Blue Bucket of Gold $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: