Sufjan Stevens seems sadder than usual. Although previous Stevens albums have covered topics from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Illinois state holidays and from serial killers to night zombies, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell is a deeply personal album that focuses on his relationship with his mother, Carrie, and her death. Stevens sings about his feelings of abandonment, depression, and regret over sparse, haunting guitars, minimal percussion, and the occasional synthesizer. The album differs musically and content-wise from Age of Adz and even the critically-acclaimed Illinois, but despite these variations, it is definitely worth a listen.Carrie & Lowell opens with “Death With Dignity,” in which Stevens laments his lack of relationship with his mother and tries to reconnect with her even after her death. In “Should Have Known Better,” he elaborates on his backstory and how his abandonment at a video store provides a reason for his feelings of distance and disconnect overall. In these two songs, Stevens shows his technical prowess, deftly layering vocals over synthesizers over pianos and guitars to create a haunting, almost ethereal soundscape that makes it seem as if the songs are directed only at you. However, this mixing is not an indicator that the album is going in the direction of Illinois’s sweeping orchestral arrangements, which feature dozens of instruments. With the brass in “All Of Me Wants All Of You” as the most complex orchestration on the album, the simplicity of the production goes to show that deep down, Sufjan Stevens is just a man with a story to tell.
The middle of the album brings us to perhaps the most personal three-song segment of 2015. In “Eugene,” Stevens provides an excruciatingly specific account of his childhood, revealing his attempts to be near his mother, but recognizing that it is now too late. “Fourth of July” is the highlight of the album. The song starts off slow and quiet, as Sufjan asks his mother: “Did you get enough love, my little dove, why do you cry?” searching for answers amid terms of endearment and love for his mother. The song then crescendos into Stevens’ resigned, almost mournful reminder that, eventually, we’re all going to die. Concluding this somewhat morbid stretch is “The Only Thing,” in which Sufjan’s sadness takes a tangible effect on him, as he contemplates suicide and self-mutilation.
The only weak point in Carrie & Lowell is the ending. The album concludes with “Blue Bucket of Gold,” which seems to be an abrupt end to the story and doesn’t provide much closure. Additionally, it is only toward the end of the album that Stevens begins to drop the religious references, which lend a more personal touch to his previous albums. However, the beginning and middle of the album are so excellent that it is almost unrealistic to uphold that quality for a conclusion.
Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is an excellent album. The new direction in which Stevens takes his music is a great contrast to the rest of his discography, and yet the album still fits in nicely with the rest of his work. The combination of deeply personal lyrics, great storytelling, and simple yet haunting instrumentation forms an overall saddening, thought-provoking album that I encourage you to check out for yourself.