Music review: Sufjan Stevens ‘Carrie & Lowell’

It’s not often that an album is considered a masterpiece within just days of its release. Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell” is doing it right now, through near-perfect scores from many renowned music critics who evidently noticed the effort and delicacy that developed the composition.

In his seventh album, Stevens reverted to his intimate folk style that has yielded the majority of his success and recognition – while heavily delving into emotionally-draining themes of death, afterlife and nostalgia.

“Carrie & Lowell” is named after Stevens’ mother and stepfather. In this album, Stevens chronicles his childhood, often times through stories of his mother, Carrie suffered from mental illnesses and drug addiction, abandoning Stevens several times through his childhood. She died in 2012, which became the inspiration to this album.

On first impression, the album’s instrumentation seems very simple and pure. A closer listen reveals complex banjo fingerpicking and ambient synth. In many cases, the most fundamental instrument used is Stevens’ lullaby-like voice. On certain tracks, his out of the ordinary vocal patterns provide the melody to the songs, with modest instrumentation used only for balance and support. The album does lack variation, but it does not take away from the work as a whole. It instead fits a mood that Stevens is attempting to portray, much like the technique he used in his fourth album, “Seven Swans.”

This is the type of album that you must REALLY be listening to, to enjoy. It is certainly not easy-listening, suitable for background music for working out or doing homework. It is especially crucial to invest yourself in the listening experience in order to enjoy and understand “Carrie & Lowell” –  and if you do, it can be a euphoric experience.

The same attentiveness is applicable to the lyrics in order to obtain Sufjan-enjoyment.

What makes this album different from Stevens’ others is its simple, autobiographical style. While Stevens typically relies on broad and unattainable ideology, “Carrie & Lowell” illustrates simple, perceptible memories that are vivid, descriptive and powerful.

The lyrics of “Carrie & Lowell” tend to rely heavily on quick, concise lines of what seem like incomplete vignettes of memories.

One line to the next may have no cohesion whatsoever. This is confusing and strange, but it is also very fulfilling. Often times, when lyrics seem like they mean nothing, they probably mean something very important: “Lemon yoghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt/ I dropped the ashtray on the floor/ I just wanted to be near you.”

While these lyrics are emotionally exclusive to Steven’s personal experience,

knowing that it means something to Stevens that we will never understand is stimulating and thought-provoking.

Some of Stevens’ more morbid memories appear on tracks such as “The Only Thing,” in which he touches upon some suicidal contemplations. “Do I care if I survive this,” he asks while considering driving off a cliff or cutting himself in a hotel room.

Even when these snippets of memory are out of context, they carry a notable weight of melancholia, and somehow accurately depict the bittersweet complexity of any relationship.

While this album touches upon several distressing and sorrowful emotions, it leaves the listener with the feeling of understanding. We can feel Stevens restlessly sorting through his thoughts and memories as a means of mourning and self-awareness, and we are left with the feeling that Stevens has actually achieved clarity through the musical journey of “Carrie & Lowell.”

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