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Review: Sufjan Stevens Sheds the Frills on the Deeply Personal ‘Carrie & Lowell’

Sufjan Stevens
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Following Sufjan Stevens’ discography up to this point has been a study in addition. More instruments, more and more esoteric references, more genre exercises. It’s been a decade since Stevens recorded a straightforward folk album, having kept busy with experimental electronic outings like 2010’s The Age of Adz, his 2009 symphony to The BQE, and an absurd amount of Christmas music.

But Carrie & Lowell reverses the trend; for his seventh album, Stevens sheds almost all of his digital frills and elaborate lyrical pomp. It’s clear from the opening strums on the first track, “Death With Dignity,” that he’s returned to folk music in the truest sense. Large stretches of the record are just delicate, virtuosic strings — hardly a sweeping orchestral score or electronic blip to be heard. The flashiest musical moments on the record (like the introduction of quiet synths on the second half of “Should Have Known Better”) are still restrained, conveying a pared-down honesty befitting the closeness of the story Stevens is telling.

Right, the story. It’s advertised clearly in the title — Carrie & Lowell is named after Stevens’ largely absent, bipolar, and schizophrenic mother and her husband, Lowell Brams, Stevens’ stepfather and Asthmatic Kitty co-founder. Our narrator doesn’t shout out obscure holidays celebrated only in Illinois or sing about an ambiguously gendered love here — he’s writing his autobiography. Sure, there are specific references to the minutiae of Oregonian geography (like Spencer’s Butte or Cottage Grove,) but they relate directly to childhood memories: Stevens visiting Carrie and Lowell over the course of three summers after the couple moved to the Pacific Northwest when he was only one. Everything on the record comes back to Stevens’ relationship with his mother, who succumbed to stomach cancer in 2012.

And their relationship was, to say the least, complicated. The 39-year-old Stevens doesn’t appear to harbor any hatred for his mother, despite her absence from his upbringing; instead, the album conveys a deep sense of longing. Carrie was an elusive ghost to her son. He wanted more of her, and the songs that chronicle his self-destructive spiral in the wake of her death are grim in a uniquely gloomy and beautiful way. The way he whispers the nihilistic refrain of “We’re all going to die” in “The Fourth of July” is haunting.

All throughout, the music manages to be both pleasant and devastating. Stevens still commandeers a plethora of instruments, and recorded a lot of the album by himself, but Carrie & Lowell might be his first full-length where loneliness is palpable. Everything is immaculately produced, but there’s a devastating and revealing emptiness to the whole record; Stevens lets both his voice and uncluttered guitar notes linger before fading into nothingness. When he adds more elaborate sounds, as on “All of Me Wants All of You,” it just serves to heighten the emotional tenor of the track — be it unfulfilled yearning or confused, painful grief.

Carrie & Lowell is such a deeply, deeply personal statement from Stevens that its smallness sometimes shows. Though it’s easily his best and most powerful album since 2005’s Illinois, it never quite reaches the same sweeping highs of that epic concept album. But this effort is a success on its own terms, hushed as its triumphs may be. The specificity of the lyrics, like when Stevens alludes to his stepfather as “The man who taught me to swim / He couldn’t quite say my first name,” really place Carrie & Lowell as Stevens’ story. He’s not writing about the bond between a mother and child, he’s writing about the troubled bond between his mother and her child. And yet even the most casual listener can feel (and hope for) his catharsis.