Album Review: Sufjan Stevens, ‘Carrie & Lowell’

Written By Christian Bischoff

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Sufjan Stevens is a thematic chameleon, changing themes and tones with each album he creates. In his debut, A Sun Came, Stevens astounded listeners with multicultural samplings inspired by music from around the world. His sophomore effort, Enjoy Your Rabbit, was characterized by his experimentation with electronica, while Seven Swans was recorded with a lo-fi, acoustic flavoring. Stevens’ seventh album, Carrie and Lowell, is a return to the acoustic plucking of his early work on Swans, and is a far departure from the grandeur and soaring synth hymns of his last album, The Age of Adz. Carrie and Lowell is an album of magnificent sadness, capturing in its 42 minutes the yearning for meaning and purpose in relation to suffering.

Carrie and Lowell is a bare bones work, significantly less produced than Stevens’ previous albums. Songs often feature Stevens’ etherial vocals accompanied only by a guitar or piano arrangement. The noticeable absence of drums on the album allows for Stevens’ vocals to float seamlessly over the clean guitar tracks, unconstrained by any forced beat or cadence. Stevens has often been heralded for sitting at the forefront of a new folk movement, creating folklore from the mythic vision quests of his lyrics and breathing new life into older mythology. While the folk is here to stay in Stevens’ newest album, his mythology is missing, and we are instead made to observe the inner workings of Stevens himself, not a reinterpretation of familiar scenes. The lack of folklore does not take away from the album; in fact, it allows Stevens to grow before our eyes as he questions the world around him and the suffering within it “What did I do to deserve this?” he questions on track, “Drawn to the Blood,” “How did this happen?”

IMG_0644_460The question is largely a result of personal tragedy, suffered by Stevens in 2012 after the death of his mother, Carrie (After whom his album is named), who died of stomach cancer. The tenuous relationship Stevens had with his mother is a central theme of the album, as he goes through various stages of mourning, soul searching, and suffering throughout the album’s eleven tracks. The mythic themes of this album exist solely in a purely relatable form; Stevens’ search for meaning in seemingly meaningless death, a truth beyond life that accounts for the suffering he’s been made to witness. As such, Carrie and Lowell plays out unadorned, an artless art that reveals the truth without obscuring it. Stevens lays his pains bare before the world, and allows us to share in them through heart-wrenching, beautiful music.

As always, Stevens outdoes himself in his inventiveness, and his creative genius is clearly evident throughout the album. “Death with Dignity” features clean fingerpicked melodies and an ambient choral ending, while “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” weaves an incredibly complex tapestry detailing Stevens’ own silent struggle with grief. The grief rises to a piano driven crescendo in “Fourth of July,” a song dealing with the death of a loved one. The juxtaposition of sweet endearments and harsh realities make the song all the better, and the sadness of the death’s immanence lurks behind every lyric. “The hospital asked, should the body be cast/ Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky/ Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth/ Did you find it all right, my dragonfly?”

Carrie and Lowell is a masterwork, and achieves a level of truth and meaning that other artists often fall short of reaching. There is no whimsy here, no hint of joy among the notes of deep, brooding sadness. Here lies a treatise on loss and its aftermath, and the messy emotions we are left with in the days and years following the death of a loved one. Love, pain, and confusion star equally in this album that does battle with the complex array of emotions that come with loss.

‘Carrie & Lowell’ Rating: 9/10

Catch Sufjan Stevens on tour this Summer:

04-10 Philadelphia, PA – Academy of Music
04-11 New York, NY – Beacon Theater
04-12 Hartford, CT – The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
04-14 Portland, ME – Merrill Auditorium
04-15 Albany, NY – The Palace Theater
04-16 Cleveland, OH – Cleveland Masonic Auditorium
04-17 Columbus, OH – Palace Theater
04-18 Indianapolis, IN – The Murat Theatre
04-20 St. Louis, MO – Peabody Opera House
04-21 Kansas City, MO – Midland Theater
04-22 Minneapolis, MN – Northrop Auditorium
04-23 Milwaukee, WI – Riverside Theater
04-24 Chicago, IL – Chicago Theatre
04-27 Detroit, MI – Masonic Temple
04-28 Grand Rapids, MI – Covenant Fine Arts Center
04-29 Toronto, Ontario – Massey Hall
04-30 Montreal, Quebec – Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier/Place Des Artes
05-01 Brooklyn, NY – Kings Theatre
05-04 Boston, MA – Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre
05-05 Washington, DC – DAR Constitution Hall
05-06 Richmond, VA – Altria Theater
05-07 Durham, NC – Durham Performing Arts Center
05-09 New Orleans, LA – Saenger Theatre
05-10 Dallas, TX – Majestic Theatre
05-11 Houston, TX – Jones Hall for the Performing Arts
05-12 Austin, TX – Bass Concert Hall
06-02 San Diego, CA – Copley Symphony Hall
06-03 Los Angeles, CA – Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
06-05 Oakland, CA – Fox Theater
06-08 Portland, OR – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
06-09 Vancouver, British Columbia – Orpheum Theatre
06-10 Seattle, WA – The Paramount Theatre
09-04-06 North Dorset England – End of the Road Festival

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.