Originally appeared on the Music Court.
Sufjan Stevens is the son of Rasjid and Carrie, though he was also a child of divorce. Most of his childhood was spent with his father, after Carrie left when Stevens was barely a year old. He spent a handful of summers with Carrie and her husband Lowell in Oregon, which he speaks of in cryptic references throughout the record (such as the mention of blue buckets of gold in the final track, which references a legend about a lost gold mine in present-day Bear Creek). Stevens has always dug into his past to add to the folktales in his music- which is most obvious on Michigan, an album about the very state where he grew up- but permeates all his music in its own right. One of my favorites includes “Decatur, or Round of Applause for your Stepmother!” from Illinois, where he doesn’t hide his own childhood pettiness: “Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her.” Stevens is prone to bitterness, but he is open to forgiveness (“Appreciate her! Stand up and thank her!”). Forgiving his stepmom for having to deal with him and his siblings at that age was easier than coming to terms with his biological mother’s abandonment. Stevens didn’t (couldn’t) understand this until Carrie was on her deathbed. Then his perspective changed. Arguably, Carrie left for the right reasons, but now that she is permanently gone, she can no longer justify her actions. Sufjan fashioned his reflections on their relationship into the tightly wound Carrie & Lowell, an ode to unconditional love.
Loss and regret plague the album in the form of Stevens’ own insecurities and confusion. The first single, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” watches Stevens wrestle with, then give in to a heroic battle of his own emotions. The accompaniment is as foggy as his grief-stricken mind, where a soft hum fills in the space between the gentle guitar and Sufjan’s soft whispers. He tries to defeat it all violently with stakes and swords, but inexplicably, he can’t. He becomes his own arrogant hero, but without guidance, he dwells and falls victim. He looks to his stepfather during “Eugene,” honoring a man he truly considered his father through and through. He fondly remembers Lowell’s imperfections, wishing that he was near as Carrie drifted further away. As much as Stevens would have liked to “save you from your sorrow,” he is unable to pull himself up from the depression brought on by his loss. Alas, he can’t even save himself. In “The Only Thing,” he continues,
“Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow”
Stevens’ anger is palpable, yet ambiguous. Openly Christian, he frequently appeals to God for explanations beyond his earthly limits. Often, Stevens seems to bury his sentiments in tongue-in-cheek Biblical references, but his cries are in earnest to his God of Elijah this time. Like Jesus in Gethsemane, Stevens begs for answers and mercy, only to be met with silence. Anger turns to resentment, on display in “All of Me Wants All of You” through a bitter memory from one of those distant summers. “All of me thinks less of you,” he says and then repeats, reinforcing his lifetime of unanswered questions. He works through his grief though, as he stiffly chants the track’s namesake lyric, simultaneously as a boy on Spencer’s Butte and as an adult reminiscing about his mother.
Stevens acknowledges the brevity of life in reference to his mother’s death, but he also discusses the delicate balance in which his own emotional frailty leaves him. The album sonically wallows in dark solitude, with his lonely guitar and an omniscient hum the only real staples throughout. Stemming from his spiritual beliefs no doubt, Stevens makes the implication that Carrie is part of that omniscience. As an angel, she watches over and continues to touch his life, even making herself an integral part of his record. The most brutal lines on the album come from Carrie in the form of dialogue on “Fourth of July,” an allegorical account of the night of Carrie’s passing. Stevens implicitly seeks an apology for all the trauma he has been through, and gains closure through one that he manufactures:
“‘And I’m sorry I left but it was for the best,
Though it never felt right’”
Stevens addresses his own end in “Should Have Known Better” and “John My Beloved,” in a manner of speaking. “Should Have” was the record’s second single, and shows a pivotal point in Stevens’ grief. He has no control over his emotions, and they paralyze him. Fear and regret are indistinguishable as he looks back, but both dissolve when he looks ahead. Similarly, a synthesizer meanders at the end of “Should Have,” becoming the only sliver of light we can reach before plunging deep into Stevens’ emotions. The album progresses, and we see that light reappear. His fossil will be “bright in the sun,” he mentions in “John.” These fossils are symbols of what will be left after all is said and done, and his outlook is optimistic. As much grief that Stevens has poured into Carrie & Lowell, he manages to close the circle, and reveals his own acceptance.
We find resolution in “Blue Bucket of Gold.” The song, though not outwardly happy, is certainly lighter, with pleasant whoos that bring to mind Bon Iver. The only genuinely joyful line on the whole record comes from this track, and alongside Stevens we rejoice: “Friend, the fables delight me!” The change of tone is significant, though subtle, and serves as the perfect finale for this emotional odyssey. The song trails off then swells back, giving a sense of renewal before finally bringing the album to an end. Stevens is resurrected, reaching an apex where he is comfortable admitting that he not only loves his mother but also misses her, though there is a lick of irony when he asks to be touched by lightning that he has only just described as a trick of the lens. The lightning brings back the proverbial light for the final time, though perhaps it never existed at all, at least not outside of Stevens.
Though I haven’t lost a parent, I feel very personally connected to this album. But as significant I find it, Sufjan wrote it for himself. It’s the raw beauty and emotion that make Carrie & Lowell universally appealing, and earn it the title as his best album to date.