Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell

Asthmatic Kitty

Mar 27, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


There's a common phrase placed on art: "a meditation on death," which makes both the art and the act of grieving and realization of mortality seem like a gentle breeze. Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell, an album inspired by the life and death of Stevens' mother and his relationship with his stepfather, seems at first to embody that impossible peace with death, but-as with the rest of Stevens' decadeplus of recorded musicthe tenderness is an entry into the often horrifying pain and heartache beneath.

Musically, Carrie & Lowell has stripped away Age of Adz's irritated electronic squawks and bellows and the joyous instrumentation of Illinois to bare the truth. Though he adds touches of keyboards and electronic tones on songs like "Should Have Known Better," the centerpiece is Stevens' voice, and gentle accompaniment, as on the tender "All of Me Wants All of You." The closest kin to Carrie & Lowell in Stevens' catalogue is probably Seven Swans, a similarly haunted journey, with similarly hymnal expressions of the small moments that make memory both worthwhile and burdensome.

As always, Stevens' precise details make his songs ring through with truth. The devastating remembrances of "Fourth of July" alternate between beautiful moments and horrifying details of dealing with the reality of his mother's death, ending each with a term of endearment. "The hospital asked/Should the body be gassed/Before I/Say goodbye/My star in the sky," he sings. The combination is so stunning it's impossible not to cry. Throughout the album, Stevens poses questions, trying to make sense of something nonsensical, "In a veil of great surprises/I wonder if you love me at all?" he wonders in "The Only Thing."

"Don't be afraid of loneliness," Stevens sang in "From the Mouth of Gabriel" from his All Delighted People EP, and it's something to aspire to, but an impossible ideal, because being left alone is rarely planned, even if it's expected. Carrie & Lowell is the sound of Stevens trying to process this loneliness, and to find some peace and kinship through his music. That he can create such beauty in such sorrow is, without exaggeration, the very reason art came to be. (www.sufjan.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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