The first time I heard Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, Carrie and Lowell, was on one of the first mornings of spring break. In retrospect, I was in completely the wrong mood to take it in: The morning was improbably warm and sunny, and I was enjoying mimosas with brunch, basking in the freedom from classes. I remember struggling to keep my attention focused on the music, and my main takeaway was that it sounded very pretty, which should come as no surprise to any person familiar with Sufjan’s previous work. The next time I listened to the album was on a plane to Mexico—once again, completely the wrong mood to listen to the album. The pretty plucking of guitar, gentle pitter-patter of piano, and Sufjan’s whispered falsetto quickly lulled me to sleep. It wasn’t until the car ride back to New Haven on the cold and dreary Sunday before the first day of class that I really paid attention to the album’s lyrics and actually felt the anguish behind them. I’ve been addicted ever since.
At this point, I’ve listened to Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell way more times than is good for my mental health. It is without a doubt his most personal and affecting album, and also his best—no small feat considering that his last three albums, Seven Swans, Illinois, and The Age of Adz, easily rank among the best albums of the previous decade. While each of those albums varies in theme and style, particularly the apocalyptic and electronic-heavy Age of Adz, they share a certain level of theatrics and playfulness that is altogether missing from Carrie and Lowell. It’s a move that makes sense considering the inspiration behind the album: the death of his estranged mother, the eponymous Carrie, in 2012, shortly after the two began to reconnect. His mother’s presence, or lack thereof, looms over the entire album; he meditates on loneliness, faith, his own mortality, and most importantly, his relationship to his mother and her death.
Sonically, the album follows a barebones approach: Every song begins with a gentle instrumental introduction, followed by Sufjan’s singing for several verses, and ends with a change in sound and mood in lieu of something more predictable and conclusive. This simple formula never gets tiring across the 11 songs of the album, thanks to the level of detail hidden in these deceptively easy-to-follow melodies.
But the staying power of the album lies beyond its acoustic beauty and its deep tragedy. After all, plenty of artists cultivate sadness as their aesthetic with much less success. What makes Carrie and Lowell so captivating is how personal it is, to the point that it feels almost voyeuristic. Lyrics like “When I was three, three, maybe four, she left us at that video store” (“Should Have Known Better”), “The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name[…]he called me ‘Subaru’” (“Eugene”), and “You checked your texts while I masturbated” (“All Of Me Wants All Of You”) provide glimpses into Sufjan’s life that range from casually devastating to uncomfortably invasive. Sufjan offers these scenes to the listener in the same fatigued croon, as though he no longer has the energy to hide.
The lyrics are not the only window into Sufjan’s thought process. The structure of the album itself seems to tell the listener about the arc of Sufjan’s grief, an arc that is unexpectedly inconclusive and seems all the more personal for its messiness. The album begins with the song that has the most closure, “Death with Dignity,” where Sufjan sings “Every road leads to an end” with something approaching confidence in his voice. At the end of the second song, the brightest moment of the album occurs, with Sufjan singing about his niece: “My brother had a daughter—the beauty that she brings: illumination, illumination.” From there, however, Sufjan falters in his conviction; in the centerpiece of the album, “Fourth of July,” he makes up a conversation with his mother that ends with a repeating refrain: “We’re all going to die.” It’s unclear whether he is singing these words from his mother’s voice or from his own, whether because he has come to genuinely accept them or because he is parroting his mother’s words to comfort himself. The final song, “Blue Bucket Of Gold,” has Sufjan begging the specter of his mother, “Tell me you want me in your life,” as if he were more unsure of her love than ever, and imploring God, “Touch me with lightning,” unclear as to whether he wants inspiration or a quick death.
Carrie and Lowell is a beautiful album, but it is not a gracefully contained package. Instead, Sufjan lays bare the messiness of his loss, grief, and recovery, and ends up with a work of rare honesty. This honesty checks the despair of the album, so that as ever-present as it is, it never becomes all-consuming. There is always uncertainty, but in that uncertainty lies the possibility of recovery along with the possibility of continued pain. It is that which keeps Carrie and Lowell fresh, listen after listen after listen.