Honesty and a guitar. That’s all Sufjan (SOOF-yahn) Stevens needs to start off Carrie & Lowell, his 2015 follow-up to the electronic-oriented “The Age of Adz”. If the first song, “Death with Dignity” doesn’t make it clear, Stevens approaches this new sonic stage having dealt with the overwhelming pain of losing his mother. As long-time fans are aware, Sufjan’s lyrics draw almost exclusively from his memories of his own life, which makes Carrie & Lowell quite a significant release.
It’s extremely easy to hear the emotional tension in Sufjan’s voice, especially as the album begins. The songs are sprinkled with playful but melancholic vocal melodies over an array of instruments. Incorporating a banjo and a cello provides for several interesting textures which are again enhanced with various electronic effects. The elegance with which he utilizes them provides for a truly heart-wrenching experience when it comes to songs like “Fourth of July”. As we’re whisked through childhood memories, Sufjan speaks of faith, family, love, addiction, hopelessness, depression and of course, death. The lens of a child’s perspective provides us with a type of objective view that allows us to truly feel the emotions suggested by the lyrics.
Growing up in a Christian environment, Sufjan’s honesty truly makes itself apparent when grief brings him to question his faith. In “Drawn to the Blood,” he appeals to God, “For my prayer has always been love. What did I do to deserve this?” In “John, My Beloved,” we hear him sing of his relationship with God and reconciling his beliefs with the world around him. Sufjan’s beliefs work their way into multiple aspects of Carrie & Lowell, which makes it that much better.
The electronic influence from Sufjan’s last full-length release is also quite apparent. By applying some ethereal effects on his acoustic instruments, he can create different feelings with the same instrument. The dampened piano and looming cello in “Fourth of July” allow the song to sound very soft but deep, which only serves to increase its emotional weight. At the same time, his intricate fingerpicking in other songs creates an almost harp-like effect using a guitar.
The vocal production is also quite interesting. He frequently has separate vocal tracks for the left and right channel, which makes it truly feel as though he could be in the room with you. Combined with his multi-voice harmonies and naturally softer voice, the lyrics are given the attention they deserve.
Sufjan didn’t know his mother as well as he would have liked. Their complex relationship meant that they had missed out on years of each other’s lives only to come together again right before she died. Sufjan talks about the fact that he didn’t properly grieve in “Should Have Known Better”, which brings him to self-destruct in “The Only Thing.”
By the end of the album, Sufjan realizes that family and friends were all there for him to lean on, but he finds it to be lacking as a replacement for the missed time with his mother. Fortunately, his writing and release of this album as a memorial to her allows him to say goodbye in his own way.