Albums of 2015 (#2): Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Equal measures of heartache and prettiness shaped Sufjan's photo box of memories into his most compelling album thus far

Feature by Tom Johnson | 02 Dec 2015

Carrie & Lowell was announced in the opening weeks of 2015 with the simple caveat that the album would see a “return to Sufjan Steven’s folk roots.” Even with this information, nothing quite prepared listeners for the sheer deftness and melancholy that sat buried in his first record since 2010’s opulent Age of Adz LP.

To give some context, Carrie and Lowell, the two central characters here alongside the creator himself, are Sufjan’s real life mum and stepdad. They married during Sufjan’s childhood only to divorce a few years later. After a complicated and distant relationship with her son, Carrie died of stomach cancer in 2012, while Lowell contines to run Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty. Those are the facts from an outsider’s point of view; what this record does so crushingly well, however, is to drag the listener into the very heart of these complex relationships and the fallout from them. So while we’re presented with in-jokes and obscure, personal references throughout the record, the sheer skill of Stevens' songwriting means that these never feel abstract. 

Put simply, Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan's best record. Where previously we had magnificent, sprawling bluster, with individual moments of sonic invention, here he crafted something quietly, magically succinct. The instrumentation too is soft and plaintive, Steven’s plucking adorned sparingly and considerately with warm splashes of percussion, piano, organ and vocals that appear sporadically like rays of sunshine in otherwise shaded surroundings.

"The strength of any story lies in the way it’s told"

One of the criticisms levelled at the record (it wasn’t completely lauded, after all) was that there wasn’t enough variation, that each song followed too closely to the rest. Repeated listens simply nullifies such assessment, however.  There is a skeletal framework that shifts only slightly in the breeze, but the more time spent with the album, the more its words and characters bloom into life. Eleven modest musical moments coming together to create a striking and singular piece of work. 

The strength of any story lies in the way it’s told and never has that been truer than on Carrie & Lowell. As with any personal memories, small moments of apparent vagueness will always mean more to those directly involved but, nonetheless, Sufjan's lyrics are tantamount to living these experiences first-hand. His inspired, eloquent turns of phrase are often as bare-boned as the music itself but, simply, you don’t just hear these words, you see them as fiery recollections in his eyes. 

Simple anecdotes take on huge weight within the confines of their associated songs and this presents the greatest change to be found in Carrie & Lowell when compared to the rest of Sufjan’s back catalogue. In those records lay great stories but they always felt scripted; fantastical narratives with only brief glimpses of his own psyche found within. It was those moments that always resonated the most, however; take Illinois’ ‘John Wayne Gacy JR, a somewhat cryptic tale of the infamous serial killer until Stevens left his own imprint in the very embers of the song: “And in my best behaviour, I am really just like him.” These individual admissions never provided the overriding narrative, but on Carrie & Lowell the opposite is always true. There are still mythical and religious references scattered throughout but it’s always Stevens' own thoughts and reflections that sit at its weary heart; a genuinely brave unrolling of his life story, laid as bare and as openly as possible. 

Perhaps then, the most pressing question regarding Carrie & Lowell, now that the dust has settled somewhat, is to ask why it affects as greatly as it does. For some it will simply be the story itself, the troubled telling of a mother and son with the most sorrowful of endings. Others might well be moved by the way in which his narrative unfurls, the seismic impact of Sufjan’s words that still bring a silent gasp even when you know their place here as well as the lines on your brow, like some kind of learned wisdom passed down. Like the great writers of the past century – see John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy et al – Stevens has a way with words that transforms even the most basic of human interactions in to powerful, potent incantations, fueled by every ounce of his existence. 

Despite the brevity of the substance, Carrie & Lowell is delivered with such melancholic fondness for its subjects, for the simple belief in life and love, that it only ever feels resoundingly welcoming and homely and, given that every inch of this record is scripted from the very fibre of his own unique story, that remains a quite remarkable achievement.