An album review on Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens.
Indie singer Sufjan Stevens released his seventh studio album on March 31st of 2015. The album was recorded in a number of studios, including the locations of New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Stevens selected Thomas Bartlett (also known as Doveman) to produce the record, known for working with other indie acts such as The National, Iron & Wine, and Rufus Wainwright. The album follows Stevens’s attempt at an electronic-based album, Age of Adz, and was released on Asthmatic Kitty Record.
In 2012, shortly after releasing the poorly received Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens lost his mother. Carrie Stevens, his sole maternal figure, abandoned the singer when he was only one year old due to a combination of schizophrenia, depression and substance abuse. The years that followed were said by Sufjan to be “of real darkness”, and were spent writing and recording from professional studios, to in hotels using nothing but an iPhone. When it came time to chose a producer, Stevens selected Thomas Bartlett who, in addition to being a close friend, had recently lost his brother to cancer. The creation of the album was said to be more of a coping mechanism and source of closure to the now 41-year-old Michigander.
The major sound shift in Carrie & Lowell is the abandonment of experimentation he previously attempted on his previous album, and the return to his acoustic-indie roots. The album is sonically similar to his previous records, Swan Songs and Michigan. The entirety of the eleven songs on the album are composed of only vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano. This both highlights Stevens’s exceptional talent at the respected instruments, while also creating the least amount of distraction from his writing.
The lyrics on Carrie & Lowell are not only about the death of his mother, but rather they are centered on death and the emotions of hopelessness and fear that come with it. Throughout the album Sufjan sings about all five stages of grief proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Sufjan repeats the line, “How? How did this happen?” on “Drawn to the Blood”, showing the signs of the first stage, denial.
On “Eugeen” he grows frustrated, stating, ”What’s the point of singing songs/If they’ll never even hear you?”, exhibiting the second stage of anger. The best example of the third stage, bargaining, comes at the end of “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” when Sufjan exclaims, “Drag me to hell in the valley of The Dalles/Like my mother”, in an attempt to strike a deal in which he will finally be with her. The fourth stage, depression, can be seen in every song, but is most clearly worded in “Fourth of July” when he repeats several times, the phrase, “We’re all gonna die”.
Directly after this low point comes the only song on the album with an uplifting tone, “The Only Thing”. In a display of the final stage of grief, Stevens sings, “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,”. This shows that Sufjan, instead of falling victim to his demons, finds solace in a higher power and the beauty in the world he resides in.