Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ masterpiece. Of all his discography, it is my favourite album. Released following the death of his mother, it’s intimate and personal, a private therapy to cope with grief. Of his experience, Stevens summarised “It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death- to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.” (interview with Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork magazine).
Carrie & Lowell is a powerful collection of tracks: nostalgic storytelling, twinkling soundscapes laden with mythological metaphors and anecdotes about childhood holidays with the family. It’s not all bliss: in fact, it’s far from it, with references to a turbulent childhood, a consequence of Stevens’ mother’s battles with schizophrenia and substance abuse. Carrie & Lowell is an acceptance of loss, with grief and bereavement as the central themes at the heart of the sound. I think it would be hard for any person, who has experienced loss firsthand, to ignore that.
How does Carrie & Lowell make me feel?
Listening to it for the first time was like coming home: it felt like I’d been led to it with purpose, at that specific time. I too was wrestling with grief. It was an ugly fight because I was resistant, stubborn and very angry, with no comprehension as to what was at the heart of those volatile emotions.
When I first listened to The Only Thing, I was struck by the beauty of it. I got to the second line, and something burst inside me like the waters of a pregnant woman, and I cried and cried as though all of the sorrow lurking inside had managed to build up enough pressure to escape. Between hearty sobs, I just listened and let the sadness sweep me away, dragging the cursor back to the beginning every time the song drew to an end.
For a while, I had to be in a very particular mood to withstand listening to the album. If a track came on shuffle and caught me off-guard, it hit a nerve and rendered me useless for a while. The songs had the power to make me an emotional wreck almost instantly. I’m glad to say that over time, as my relationship with grief has evolved, I’ve found myself able to actually enjoy Carrie & Lowell on a sonic level as opposed to purely emotional. It is definitely a point of pride that I can now listen to Carrie & Lowell all the way through now, crying yet smiling all at the same time!
How does Carrie & Lowell inspire me?
I’ve not made music for a few months now, but my aspiration is to one day achieve the creation of something as lyrically powerful and poignant as Carrie & Lowell. The storytelling is simple yet effective, and as a singer/lyricist, I really appreciate minimalism that packs a punch. The temptation is to spell everything out for an audience: it is so easy to over-complicate the expression of emotions and events when you think about it too much, but what Stevens does brilliantly is treat this record like an unfiltered journal, and I think that’s what resonates with the listener so much.
If you want to have your heart broken into a million tiny pieces, I thoroughly recommend the live show edition of this album. It’s hauntingly beautiful.