Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens

Asthmatic Kitty, 2015

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Difficult and sad, honest and poignant, Carrie & Lowell is the sound of Sufjan Stevens laying bare his soul and confronting his life.

Gone is the ornamentation and drums of previous records; this is simply Stevens and his guitar, with the songs broken up by and occasionally embellished with mournful keyboard swooshes. The lyrics are terse and factual, concerning loss, love, mortality, and family in a relatable way.

The titular Carrie is Stevens’ mother, who passed away in 2012; Lowell is his stepfather and CEO of Asthmatic Kitty. Stevens had filled in gaps in interviews about his history, so we know that he only lived with and saw his mom sporadically due to her mental illnesses and substance abuse, and it has weighed heavy on his soul over the years. Some of the lyrics concern childhood memories, some teenage memories from summers in Oregon (which receives plenty of shoutouts here), with vivid depictions that are not always flattering but always honest.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Stevens still has a lyrical flair that can border on the obscure, which makes honest lines like “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end” that much more immediate. “Should Have Known Better” is poignant and moving, Stevens’ breathy vocals and trembling guitar undercut with quietly soaring background vocals that are both biographical (“When I was three, three maybe four / She left us at that video store”) and self-critical of hoping for something different than reality (“I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / The bridge to nowhere / I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling.”

Much of the music is subsumed under the weighty lyrics by design, which isn’t to detract from its power; simplicity in folk music has always been a strength, because a solid melody and moving lyrics need no ornamentation. On the flip side, this means individual songs rarely stand out on musical merits, other than a lick here or a turn of phrase there. An exception may be the relatively brief “Eugene,” which is full of childhood details (“Lemon yogurt, remember I pulled at your shirt / I dropped the ashtray on the floor / I just wanted to be near you / Emerald Park, wonders never cease  / The man who taught me to swim, he couldn't quite say my first name / Like a Father he led community water on my head / And he called me Subaru”) that jarringly shift into present-day grief (“Still I pray to what I cannot see / In the sprinkler I mark the evidence known from the start / From the bed near your death, and all the machines that made a mess … What's left is only bittersweet / For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me / Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away / What's the point of singing songs / If they'll never even hear you? “

This is not an easy album, nor one you will return to all that often, as it will bum you out in a beautiful way. But when you listen, it will make you think...and then want to call your mom.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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