Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

please credit © Denny Renshaw

Head in the clouds: Sufjan Stevens (photo: Denny Renshaw for metrotimes.com)

Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

1 LowellIt’s a truth which is sad in more ways than one, but songs – and albums – rooted in heartbreak are ten-a-penny, and have been for years. As well as the bleak implication that this is a world filled with upset and distress, this has also resulted in an oversaturated market of songwriters purging their most personal demons by pouring their hearts onto the lyric sheet. From the quietly cryptic to the brazenly overwhelmed, many of these contenders are capable of producing heartfelt, sincere, and (for them at least) necessary work, but the unfortunate matter is that not all attain lasting status. There are only so many ways of articulating one’s own grief, and capturing wider imaginations with projections of highly personal turmoil is more difficult than it may seem.

Sufjan Stevens, however, has achieved something remarkable with his seventh studio album, in which his characteristically autobiographical songwriting is at its most painfully sharp, mining a casket of intimate memories in the wake of his mother’s death. Structurally, the traditional contours of folk ballads are in use, but Carrie & Lowell is quietly astounding, as the artist’s gentle poetry unfurls and entrances anew with each listen.

Stevens’ mother – the Carrie of the album’s title – was a strange presence in his family. She left him and his siblings early in their lives, and from then on contact was allegedly sporadic, and smudged with tension. Her own life was pockmarked with troubles of her own, including depression, substance abuse schizophrenia, and biopolar disorder: issues which left their scars throughout Stevens’ family. Carrie & Lowell indicates that Stevens spent a lot of time following his mother’s death trawling through this muddy past in the hopes of finding closure. However, anyone hoping for a record of hard-earned catharsis is out of luck: Stevens’ emotions are too complex to be reduced to crystal-clear wisdoms.

Stirringly, most of Stevens’ allusions to his mother fixate on her absence, felt even prior to her passing. Even so, the connection felt by son to mother is palpable, weighting these songs with a considerable power, belying their wispy fragility. Stevens opens his feelings in such a public form, making no bones about his mother’s flaws (“she left us at that video store”), and yet he constantly sounds like a man aching to retrieve a lost bond. Carrie & Lowell is peppered with references to longing: a desire for reunion if not reconciliation, in spite of – and maybe partly due to – all her flaws. ‘Eugene’ finds him clinging to Carrie’s sleeve, where she was known to conceal her cigarettes; one of many recollections which juxtaposes aching love with vague detachment.

By referring so openly to his feelings, Stevens sheds any wreaths of artisanship and creates something which sounds pure and sincere. Musically, too, the sounds feel unblemished. ‘Should Have Known Better’ dots itself with keyboards which feel as organic as the waves of plucked banjos and choral harmonies, and the cloudy piano figures which billow during ‘Fourth of July’ and ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ emphasise the hazy blurring of fractured memories. Stevens himself seldom raises his voice above that of a whisper, in a style strongly reminiscent of Elliott Smith’s own, though the latter’s brittle anger is here supplanted by a gaping sadness.

The album’s most overtly affecting song is also its opener, and it holds the key which unlocks the incoming labyrinth of recollections, tangents, and sensations. Over supple, bright arpeggios, Stevens lets his tuneful melodies rise and swell over lyrics which multiply in weight the more they are heard. “Your apparition passes through me,” he croons in falsetto, and likewise, Carrie’s spirit pervades the fabric of his music. She becomes a distraction, her face appearing at every turn, culminating in the central motif of the reeling ‘The Only Thing’: “should I tear my eyes out now? / Everything I see returns to you somehow.”

Carrie & Lowell is whole without feeling conceptual, chiefly because Stevens’ writing is so delicately wrought. Never once does a sense of calculation or artistry touch upon this music; instead, Stevens bares his soul in a manner which sidesteps the raggedness without losing the sentiment. His emotions are a tangled mess, yet he picks through them all with a touching poise, evading melodrama in favour of honest, plain-spoken beauty. During the final verse of ‘Death with Dignity’, his suffering rings through every word, without the need for sweeping crescendos or cracked vocals. “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end.”

Carrie & Lowell is not an artistic statement, but it feels thoroughly necessary and remarkably moving nonetheless, with beauty and hope nestled amid the sorrow. “Make the most of your life, while it is rife / While it is light,” Stevens sighs at the album’s core, dosing his lamentation with light. There may be no shortage of heartbreak in music, but it’s rare that something of this distinction, resonance, and purity rises above the fray.

“I don’t know where to begin.”

21/04/15

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Posted on April 21, 2015, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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