Of all the many ventures of Sufjan Stevens, it seems he’s rarely faced inward toward himself. 2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Illinois were deeply intelligent, beautiful, wacko records, but mainly historical works. And 2010’s The Age of Adz was somewhat forgettable, another thematic (and very experimental) piece of work. His latest is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, and though it is a sort of theme record in some ways, it doesn’t feel as intimidating. Carrie & Lowell, named for his mother (who passed in 2012) and stepfather, is Stevens’ simplest record, but also his most magnificent.
Stevens has spent the last few years working on a handful of artsy, otherworldly projects, but where he’s landed now is most intriguing place. He’s taken a giant step away from his oddball imagination and instead, focused on the memories that have been lurking there, seemingly waiting to be shared. Singing about his family, relationships, life’s banalities, places he’s loved and death, his songs entrance and enchant. An old photo graces the album cover, allowing us an unlikely glance into Stevens’ past.
That intense attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Stevens is present in a most affecting way on Carrie & Lowell. References to specific items, moments and movements paint a most vivid series of musical snapshots, capturing people and places the way a gritty memoir would. And that’s essentially what the record becomes – Stevens’ memoir of his complicated relationship with his mother.
“Fourth of July” is one of the most descriptively written songs, and discusses death in such an earthy way with repeated references to animals. Though Stevens’ voice is as haunting and ethereal as ever, his recollections are so painfully real. Singing about the most basic thing – conversations in a hospital – and confronting mortality so simply (“We’re all gonna die”), Stevens has created a masterpiece with this song. It’s aesthetically stunning and dreamy, and the lyrics cut deep.
A vibrant soundscape emerges with “Eugene”, a song so specifically of a place, and one that is obviously meaningful to Stevens. “Light struck from the lemon tree…a lemon yogurt/Remember I pulled at your shirt/I dropped the ash tray on the floor/I just wanted to be near you”, he sings, putting us right there in the room with him, smelling his smells, hearing his sounds, and seeing what he saw. There are countless childhood memories wrapped up in this little explosion of a song. Perhaps the most authentic of which is one about a crucial figure in his life. “The man who taught me to swim/He couldn’t quite say my first name/…and he called me Subaru/…some part of me was lost in your sleeve/Where you hid your cigarettes/No I’ll never forget”, he remembers. These endless tidbits of information build a rich story of his past.
“When I was three/Three maybe four/she left us at that video store”, he sings on “Should Have Known Better”, the most heartbreaking song on the record (though it feels impossible to choose one). The keyboard notes are sweet and poppy, casting a positive ray of sunshine over some of his darkest memories. Other references to people dear to him appear across this song. “My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings/Illumination”, he sings towards the end, as though he’s found reasons to be hopeful and happy, despite what he’s been through.
To be able to express himself so candidly and so poetically is a gift that makes Stevens a true rarity. He’s an artist through and through, but his most brilliant, striking work of art is also his least artistic. There are no frills on Carrie & Lowell, no fancy production. Just the man and his memories. And it turns out, that’s all we never knew we needed from him.