Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Steven’s new album is exquisite. It is hauntingly beautiful, painfully sad and so skilfully crafted it seems effortless. The tracks hang together so lightly their notes hardly seem to graze the ear; each is somehow soft with fragility, yet also weighted with emotion.
Stevens has shed the whimsy of some of his earlier projects, and tightly reigned in any of his grand musical scores. He is a musician who has experimented widely over the course of his career, yet in this latest work he draws the strings tight – this album is 40 minutes of intensely personal, grief stricken songs. The instruments are so light, the lyrics whispered so gently, it feels like a single intimate performance. It calls out for silent attention and reflection. It deserves it.
Carrie & Lowell is about grief and loss. Carrie is Steven’s mother, who abandoned his family when he was just a year old and suffered from depression, alcoholism and schizophrenia. Lowell was Steven’s stepfather for the 5 years he was married to Carrie – the 5 years when every summer Stevens, as a young boy, would stay with them. Lowell now runs Stevens’ small record label, Asthmatic Kitty. Carrie died in December 2012. This devastating album was prompted by the loss of the mother he had already lost many times over. The ghostly voice breathed over all the songs is one trying to express and work out the pain and confusion of this maternal relationship, and the overwhelming aftermath to her death. It is heart-breaking.
Yet, even at the moments when sadness seems to suffocate the songs, they manage to retain a vibrancy, a life and energy that infuses the record with catharsis. The voices weave amongst each other in a shimmering fabric of sound; it is easy to lose the sharp poignancy of the lyrics in the soaring musicality of each moment. Silent reflection of the lyrics may prompt tears, but silent absorption of the whole piece can be nothing other than pleasurably astounding.
This confused harmony of hurt and beauty is exactly what Stevens was attempting to come to terms with. He described the process as “something that was necessary”; in the wake of loss he needed “to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering”. Stevens has created perhaps his most challenging work, and perhaps his most stunning.