There are very few albums I can mention that are as heart breaking, as overwhelming, as concise, as perfect as Carrie & Lowell. Even then, comparisons here are mute. What Sufjan Stevens has delivered in his most recent release is a memorial to his late mother, but also a painful autobiography. As he has said in interviews, “this is not an art project; this is my life”.
In these recollections are painted a vivid portrait of despair and sadness, of the desire for a connection with someone who is gone. As the soft finger picking opens the album on “Death With Dignity”, Stevens gently whispers to apparitions of his late mother, making it clear he “don’t know where to begin”. With this track, reminiscent of 2004’s Seven Swans, it sets the stage for this album; where Swans was a banjo album of Christian folk, Carrie builds on the devotion, replacing faith in God with the love never able to be fully shared with a mother.
The humanity is extended into childhood memories, very early recollections where, like in most of Stevens’s lyrics the argument for reality versus fable dies down because what is presented is inexplicably the truth. Even when they may be brief as in “Should Have Known Better” with “When I was three, three maybe four/ She let us at that video store” or the entirety of the title track, an unbroken stream of bygone days, interjected with allusions.
Lyrically, this album is stellar. Where the music which accompanies it is of course stellar and somber as need be, “easy listening” as Stevens has called it with deadpan, the words which make them make Stevens one of the best songwriters of this generation and otherwise. Instead of taking Dylan beatnik cut ups, Stevens puts entire stories into mere lines, condensing and directly encapsulating his emotions while still brushing shoulders with Greek, Biblical, and historical allusions. Many of the songs actually feature references to geographical locations in Oregon, such as in “Eugene”, this being the town he would take summer vacations to with his mother and stepfather.
This reaches its epitome in the final track, “Blue Bucket Of Gold”, taking its name after the myth of a lost Blue Bucket Mine in Oregon. The rumored treasure in this case becomes a metaphor for the love of his mother, something he is seeking but not able to find. This album imparts the despair associated with loss, like in one of the best tracks, “The Only Thing” where acts of self harm are stopped by “signs and wonders”: constellations, messages from prophets, and God’s grace.
Following his mother’s passing, Stevens has described elsewhere of the randomness of the pain he would feel. With this new album, he presents an intimate dedication to his mother coupled with tinges of God’s love helping him able to fight through the dark period he felt. His prayers end answered; to release these songs he invites listeners and fans to see the love which can transcend and guide the hurt through the hard times.
It will be hard for any album this year to top this release.