Sometimes music can be utterly beautiful and yet really hard to listen to simultaneously. Sometimes music can connect in a way that opens up feelings you didn’t even know you were having. Sometimes music lodges itself in your mind, ready for its significance to be unveiled in the future. All of that and more can be said about my experience with ‘Carrie & Lowell’ to date. I wasn’t especially excited about it ahead of release, reading pieces from the label about compromises on the vinyl quality and remembering my near indifference to the sound of ‘The Age Of Adz’. Sufjan Stevens was an artist I’d always looked in on and I had purchased a fair swathe of his output to date, but I wasn’t expecting a simple, stark masterpiece. Because that is what ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is.
The Carrie in the title is Stevens’ mother, a schizophrenic alcoholic who flitted in and out of his life, walking out when he was one and then disappearing again when she split with his stepfather, the other name on that sleeve above. She died in 2012 from stomach cancer and he was present, but struggling with a grief that was tied up with so much absence. The sense of loss that is part of what it is to be human was caught in amongst so many other difficult emotions. In reflecting upon that time in his life, Stevens crafted what is easily his finest album to date.
We had a near miss towards the end of this year with one of our family. We had the dreaded phone call that we should all assemble as time was short. En route from the hospital, all I could hear playing in my head was ‘Death With Dignity’, the track which opens ‘Carrie & Lowell’ so delicately. It’s concluding refrain “you’ll never see us again” looped distantly, attaching itself to emotions triggered by an old soul unwilling to let the end scare them or those around them. The gathering had been stage managed by the afflicted and, looking back, it’s amazing to think that she’s still with us, having pulled off quite the recovery, considering how graceful that afternoon had been. I already loved this record by this point, but that day made me understand it a little bit more.
The harmonies and warm acoustic sounds of a number of these songs were jettisoned for the much talked of ‘Fourth Of July’, with its deliberately disorienting fuzzy background and eerily disembodied falsetto. It is arguably the most affecting song of the year but it’s so difficult. Something about the construction of the song means that when the line “we’re all gonna die” comes up, it cuts through to our anxieties about mortality. Then there’s the lyric, “shall we look at the moon, my little loon? Why do you cry?” which has had me welling up on numerous occasions. Whatever cathartic power recording ‘Carrie & Lowell’ may have had for Stevens, it has absorbed so much of what is so rarely said this sincerely in song that it is often devastating for the listener.
Childhood memories litter the record, some happier than others but all vivid. ‘Should Have Known Better’ reflects on the regrets brought about by grief, despite a reconciliation of sorts in the final days. “I should have known better, nothing can be changed” he sings, but an uplift in feelings is suggested by an almost playful burst of melody in the song’s second half. Meanwhile, on ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’, things seem rather less optimistic, life’s challenges taking their toll as he intones “fuck me, I’m falling apart,” in remarkably raw fashion.
The album concludes with ‘Blue Bucket Of Gold’, which precedes at funereal pace, with additional, more tremulous piano bursts and reverb-washed harmonies deployed on occasion. Then, at just under the three minute mark, it drops out and becomes a shimmering drone piece, reflecting the uncertainty of its lyrics. Like so much of this breathtaking record, there is no filter and no protection from the emotions that make these songs so powerful. ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is not an easy listen, but it has a resonant, honest beauty that makes it one of the year’s finest without a doubt.