Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
The front cover of Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album is a fragment out of the deep past, a faded snapshot of the titular couple in days long past. Carrie, the singer’s mother, smiles with her eyes closed behind oversized glasses. Lowell, Stevens’ stepfather (and head of his record label, Asthmatic Kitty) stares into the camera in a calm, benevolent fashion. It’s a moment captured of a couple – and especially a woman – for whom blissful moments could be difficult to come by.
Sufjan Stevens opened up to Pitchfork recently about his family past and the inspirations it gave for this album, the first since 2010’s The Age of Adz. Carrie originally left the family when Sufjan was only a year old, and his contact with her remained a sporadic map of peaks and valleys for the rest of her life. The album focuses itself around three summers Sufjan spent with her and his stepfather in Oregon between the ages of 5 and 8. This is, of course, the sugarcoated version; the interview and the lyrics on Carrie & Lowell hint at much darker circumstances
Sufjan’s mother was an alcoholic, a drug addict, depressed, and diagnosed with schizophrenia. There are moments on the album that speak to the nature of growing up, if not with her, then near her: “Head on the floorboards (covered in blood) / Drunk as a horsefly / Climb on the mattress pad / Twist my arm” he sings on the title track, and on “Should Have Known Better” he says “when I was three, three maybe four / She left us at that video store”. These are nightmare moments studded amongst the memories of Oregon.
Of that state the references abound: Spencer’s Butte, the sea lion cave, the bright Oregon breeze, the city of Eugene, the Tillamook woods, the covered bridges of Cottage Grove, the Dalles. The song titles may not be as grandiose as Michigan or Illinois, but there is a case to be made that Carrie & Lowell could be considered the third entry in his “Albums about each of the 50 states” gimmick. The images of these wind-swept vistas and colourful towns contrasts starkly with the confusion that Sufjan feels – confusion towards his feelings for his mother and his feeling for his faith.
His mother died in 2012, of a stomach cancer that came on quickly and killed just as quickly. “Eugene”, “Death With Dignity”, and “Fourth of July” all make reference to it, crawling over the confusion and regretful longing of a man reeling from a sudden unexpected vacuum in his life. By his own admission he spent time after her death attempting to be closer to her by overindulging in drugs and alcohol. This in turn led to depression: on “Eugene” he finishes the song “drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away” and asks “what’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” Later, on “The Only Thing”, this deepens into suicidal thoughts: “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm / Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark / Signs and wonders: water stain writing the wall / Daniel’s message; blood of the moon on us all”. Closely following this is the line “Do I care if I despise this? Nothing else matters, I know / In a veil of great disguises; how do I live with your ghost?” which leads into what I feel is possibly the most interesting question raised on the album. Penultimate track – and single – “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” can have two readings that are at odds with each other. Stevens’ Christian faith has never really been secret; while he prefers to present himself as a more neutral “spiritual” singer (perhaps to avoid the pigeonholing effect of specified religion that befell Cat Stevens), his particular faith is fairly easy to parse. He calls out Jesus by name on this record, at the end of “John My Beloved”. Hence, then, the dichotomy: Does he mean that there is no shade – rest – in the shadow of the cross? That is, in the face of overwhelming grief. loss, and confusion, has he found that religion holds no comfort or cleanse? Or does he mean that there is no shade – ghost – in the shadow of the cross, in that the rather toxic legacy of his mother – her “shade”, as it were – cannot continue to exist in the embrace of his faith? It’s an idea that seems comforting on the face of it, but underneath that lies a real loss, the loss of feeling that memory can evoke, gentle or harsh. It’s a question that loops around itself without end, fitting given the singer’s proclivity for both mythologizing and obscuring the specifics about himself and his beliefs.
I’ve focused on the lyrics and the concepts behind them largely because that’s exactly where the artist’s focus is. This is easily the most stripped-down Sufjan Stevens album yet. It’s a sharp turn away from the orchestral intricacy of Illinois and Age of Adz, and even from the comparatively less ornate Michigan. In musical terms its closest perhaps to the acoustic Seven Swans, but there is a fragility and a resonance on Carrie & Lowell that sets it apart in his discography. It’s sparse, simple, and uncomplicated, a beautifully uncluttered arrangement for the raw emotion being poured out.