Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens (2015)
Spirit of my Silence, I can hear you
But I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
Thus begins the amazing lyrical & musical journey that is folk artist Sufjan Steven’s latest studio album, “Carrie & Lowell” – and in true Sufjan form, it’s a journey with a destination even he doesn’t fully understand.
Those familiar with Stevens will quickly notice the abrupt departure from his more recent work – gone are grand electronica experiments from 2010’s “Age of Adz.” And even like his previous acoustic days, there are no mighty choral arrangements or group-sing joy here. No, this journey is personal, as personal as one can get.
Carrie, Stevens’ mother, suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, making for a complicated and troubled relationship. Her death from stomach cancer in 2012 was, in many ways for Stevens, a formality of sorts – in effect, she had died to him numerous times before, repeatedly abandoning him over the years. When I was three, three maybe four, he sings in “Should Have Known Better,” she left us at the video store. Echoes of this dysfunction and every emotion one could expect are explored on this album: Why God, why? (“Drawn To The Blood”), self-questioning and second-guessing (“I Should’ve Known Better”), and the hopeless pain of lack of closure (“The Only Thing”). It’s the hard grief of a lost loved one both before and after they are lost and the constant vacillation between intimacy and repulsion: Raise your right hand / Tell me you want me in your life / Or raise your red flag / Just when I want you in my life.
“Carrie & Lowell” presents a number of Christian references – not uncommon to Stevens’ music, but perhaps more pronounced than anything since Seven Swans. God of Elijah, prayer, the blood, signs and wonders, hell, and the cross all make repeated appearances. Stevens is not a Christian artist in the classical sense of the term, and in fact has gone out of his way over the years to avoid the baggage that comes with that label. But clearly, his faith is woven throughout his music. And here, it is a faith that both informs but openly wrestled with – not as much providing answers as eliciting questions.
Musically, Stevens goes to great lengths to make these songs as intimate as possible. Acoustic arpeggios, ethereal keyboards, vocals equalized to sound like a hushed whisper and an almost total absence of any kind of percussion facilitates this feel. The total effect is that we, the listener, are taken on a tour inside a man’s very soul; and it is astounding.
Which is why I find myself drawn to “Carrie & Lowell” more than anything he’s done in recent years. It lulls you in with its soft dulcet tones, only to hit you over the head with its brutal assessment. “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” is perhaps the best example of this, beginning with beautiful acoustic guitar runs over what sounds like the white noise of a TV set to a station that doesn’t exist. The white noise persists eerily throughout the song, just enough in the background to be reminded of its presence. Lyrically, it’s perhaps Stevens’ most direct song on the album: Drag me to hell in the valley of The Dalles / Like my mother / Give wings to a stone / It’s only the shadow of a cross.
I’m struck by the honesty of Sufjan’s journey – leaving no stone unturned, literally and lyrically. We were created to be in relationship with each other, Stevens seems to say. And yet sometimes those relationships can be brutally complicated and painful. The very people we love the most are often the hardest to truly love.
Perhaps the album’s culmination is found at the end of the very first track: Sometimes the letting go is the only way the journey can ever be completed.
The sum of “Carrie & Lowell,” lyrically and sonically, is the total experience of a journey that Stevens, it seems, has been longing to tell for some time. It’s imperfect: full of emotions and unplanned pit stops along the way. He’s looking back as one older and wiser, putting things in perspective – but also one still trying to heal from wounds cut deep, still fresh. And it is beautiful. Which is why you should join him on the journey.
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.