Carrie & Lowell
by Chad Jewett
At one point, near the center of Sujan Steven’s deeply poignant, haunting new album Carrie & Lowell, the 39 year-old singer-songwriter softly whispers “I just wanted to be near you”. It’s a statement of stark intimacy that stands like a synecdoche for the rest of the album, a quietly devastating collection of songs about love, death, family, and loneliness. That Stevens has never seemed closer — never farther away than a ripple of guitar or a slight thrum of piano — further underlines the record’s gentle closeness. Where past albums have recalled the Technicolor melodic bursts of Vince Guaraldi or the vivid American romance of Aaron Copland, here quiet tenderness seems to be prized above all else. Tied conceptually to memories of his troubled mother (Carrie) and his stepfather (Lowell) the album can at times be hard to listen to, so sharp is its emotional nakedness, its willingness to bite deeper into bittersweet inner thoughts and acidic memories. But the beauty in that vivid pathos — it’s a record that lingers ghostlike in the back of your mind in an era where albums come and go fast — is obvious. Seven albums into his career, Stevens has found a way to connect through specificity the way he used to with outsized myth. In every sense, Stevens is strikingly near us.
Until now, Stevens has tended to reveal himself only obliquely, through the translucence of archetypes and high-concepts. We might glimpse some version of the singer-songwriter in the embattled humanity of Illinois B-Side “Adlai Stevenson”, or presume some working-class autobiography in Michigan stand-out “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)”, but Stevens has always been canny in populating his confessionals with outside characters, or vice versa – putting his words in the mouths of myths and legends. After he moved on from the state-history framing devices of Michigan and Illinois, there came The Age of Adz, which had the life and work of outsider artist Royal Robertson as one layer, and the album’s baroque blankets of electronics as another. Even the seemingly more personal Seven Swans ultimately reads as a mythic, Bible-as-literature collection of tone poems. Ironically, only the gently melancholic moments of Stevens’ two holiday anthologies, 2006’s Songs For Christmas and 2012’s Silver & Gold fully prepare you for the spare, poignant clarity of Carrie & Lowell.
But where his earlier artistic acme Illinois began with Stevens summoning an oracle-like Carl Sandburg the way a Greek poet might call on his muse, here he begins much more conversationally: “I don’t know where to begin”. As an opening statement, and a central refrain of album-opener “Death With Dignity”, the moment is both telling and deceiving, underlining the record’s self-reflexivity as it belies just how masterful Carrie & Lowell is as both a collection of songs and a triptych of short stories. It’s an album that feels almost tangibly well-arranged; every sound and word appears to be in its place. Over a silvery thread of guitar, Stevens balances his more familiar symbolist nature poetry with ruminations that are piercingly direct – at one point musing “Chimney swift that finds me, be my keeper / Silhouette of the cedar / What is that song you sing for the dead?”, at another: “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end”.
That balance of painterly detail – places, fauna, and admixtures of Biblical and Classical allusion remain key to Stevens’ lyrics – with a newfound economy comes to define the record. You can find it on album-highlight “Should Have Known Better” (a song as effortlessly tuneful as it is quietly shattering), which flits between memories and local color: “When I was three, three maybe four / She left us at that video store … I’m light as a feather / I’m bright as the Oregon breeze”. The albums grainy minutiae — both ugly and gorgeous – courses like a bittersweet stream through the LP. It’s an album of gut-wrenching scenes, beautifully photographed. Of the many reasons why Carrie & Lowell likely stands as Sufjan Stevens’ finest album, his honed ability to populate his beloved American spaces with stinging first-person revelations ends up the most arresting.
Elsewhere, on the captivating “The Only Thing”, Stevens layers thoughts of suicide and depression over mythic imagery, resulting in lines like, “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car / Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night / Signs and wonders: Perseus aligned with the skull / Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all”. Later, the narrator finds poetry in precisely the kind of small-scale detail that Stevens has been expanding into revelations for years: “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark / Signs and wonders: water stain writing the wall / Daniel’s message, blood of the moon on us all”. A lone acoustic guitar twinkles beneath the song, delivered in a cooing hush and one of the more memorable melodies Stevens has crafted, again pairing a craftsmen’s sense of beauty to a song that recalls Leonard Cohen’s troubling “Dress Rehearsal Rag” in its exploration of dark nights of the soul.
As a holistic artistic statement, Carrie & Lowell only seems to whittle down the grandness of Illinois and The Age of Adz. While most of the bombast and mass has been cleared away, the album is nevertheless a carefully shaped, studio-as-instrument document, as striking in its instinct for detail and careful brushstrokes as those albums were in their Americana maximalism. Note, for instance, the burbling electronics that murmur gorgeously beneath the otherwise sepia-toned folk of “Should Have Known Better” and “Carrie & Lowell”, the infectious, minimalist Fender Rhodes riff and chipper harmonies that dot the swelling back half of “Should Have”. Or consider the gauzy soundscape of “John My Beloved” and “Fourth Of July”, the latter of which packs the songs gently insistent pianos in cotton and presents Stevens’ voice with crisp pristineness, haloed by free-form ambient notes that wax and fade around him. “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”, a heartbreaking exploration of loneliness and anxiety (“I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart / Lonely vampire inhaling its fire / I’m chasing the dragon too far”), is made all the more poignant by the wavering, watery effect that turns Stevens’ voice into a slowly dimming light.
As troubled as the central thoughts, anxieties, and preoccupations of Carrie & Lowell are, there is no doubting the confident touch that Sufjan Stevens has brought to these songs. Like the best melodies, several songs feel as though they’ve been around for years. Word choices seem simultaneously labored over and bracingly natural. All together, the LP exudes an atmosphere of quiet assuredness and honed solidity – an album’s album. Carrie & Lowell stands as a uniquely masterful world unto itself, from an artist searching out a whole new apex.