Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

So I had this whole review typed up, ready to go. You know the kind: a little bit of background about the artist, a few carefully constructed sentences that attempt to describe the record in the context of the artists earlier work. And there was a genuine effort at remaining coolly detached, objective because that’s what those who write about music are supposed to do, right?   Except I am first and foremost a music lover, someone who still finds magic in melody, who is still moved by a few simple chords and words that are sung with genuine heart and feeling.

So I listened to Carrie & Lowell one more time last night. One final distraction free run through, an affirmation listen if you like, before publishing the few words I had pulled together about the record. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t publish those words because they didn’t reflect in any real way just how affecting the experience of listening to this record had been. Objectivity and cool detachment seemed to hold sway and because of that, they read as dishonest and insincere. So this is my attempt to start again, to convey  just how much beauty and compassion can be found in this heart-breaking music.

Carrie & Lowell is a record that examines in moving detail Sufjan Stevens’ complex relationship with his mother. When he was just an infant his mother abandoned the family and spent most of the rest of her life battling alcoholism and depression before she passed away in 2012. Contact between the family and their absent mother was sporadic at best, with Steven’s recollections of her confined to a few faded childhood memories of summers spent with her and her husband at the time, Lowell Brams.  It is an album that attempts to address the tangled strands of those relationships, but also to confront the emotional turmoil brought on by her death, with so much still left unresolved.

It is at times, an unbearably sad album – on the heart-wrenching ‘Should Have Known Better’ he sings ‘when I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store…’, a line of such chilling, incomprehensible sadness that it feels like the weight of that moment has been passed over to us. The extraordinary ‘Fourth of July’  is the centrepiece of the album; a chokingly, tender recollection of his mothers death. That event and how he subsequently came to terms with it, informs everything he writes about on the album.

In a recent interview, Stevens said: ‘Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you. It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.’ The incredible compassion and forgiveness in those words is evident right from opening track ‘Death With Dignity’ where Stevens sings “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, And I long to be near you, But every road leads to an end, Yes every road leads to an end”

Musically, it is a record that retreats to the folky acoustic guitar shapes of his earlier work but with subtle layers of synths and keys that adds moments of shivery, ambient beauty.

There is not much I can add that might convince you of just how special this album is. In re-writing this piece, all I have really achieved is the realisation that words are such poor things,  wholly inadequate in conveying just how affecting these songs are. It is music to be felt, not read about, a deeply personal and moving meditation on life, death and everything in between.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)