US - New York - Full Moon 228 - 04/04/15
Carrie & Lowell
Asthmatic Kitty Records
Nearly five years after his excellent and different 'double bill' in 2010 (All Delighted People and The Age of Adz), Sufjan Stevens returns with a new album, Carrie & Lowell named after Stevens' mother and stepfather. Its eleven songs are about 'life and death, love and loss, and the artist's struggle to make sense of the beauty and ugliness of love.' Well, in short: Life. And death. It's also billed as a return to Stevens' 'folk roots', according to the label.
Sufjan's mother Carrie died in 2012. The mother was a distant mother, as she left when Sufjan was only a baby. Carrie's second husband Lowell Brams must have been the one 'sowing the seed' for the talent to come for the genius songwriting, multi-instrumentalist artist Sufjan Stevens, I guess. As The Guardian wrote recently (on Thursday 26 March, 2015):
'There was no music in the home Stevens shared with his father and stepmom - no records, no stereo - but Lowell, an amateur musician and avid record collector, introduced Stevens to Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Judee Sill, Nick Drake, The Wipers and Mike Oldfield. He visited Stevens throughout his childhood and through high school, sending him mix tapes, and when Stevens formed his own bands at Hope College, Lowell would be in the audience, offering uncritical and unequivocal support.' Brams would later become the co-founder and head of Stevens' record label Asthmatic Kitty. Stevens contributed to Lowell Brams' 2009 ambient record Music For Insomnia (Library Catalog Sound Series, Vol 4.)). Anyway, the death triggered (of course) Sufjan Stevens to deal with her death and all his grieve and loss through his life up to now. 'I wasn't able to admit how deeply I was affected by her death.' All this simply had to result in an inspired, highly personal, indeed sad and emotional but way, way far from depressing collection of songs. It's a very touching and moving, yes simply an amazing album. Naked and honest, yes, and a true masterpiece.
Collaborators on Carrie & Lowell include Sean Carey, Casey Foubert, Ben Lester, Laura Veirs, Nedelle Torrisi, and Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman), but with Sufjan Stevens being the 'live anchor', multi-instrumental guy that he is, it's quite clear he's been doing most parts himself. The album's two first tasters were "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" and "Should Have Known Better", both being key-tracks on the album. And they're both 'growers' - meaning songs getting better and better every time you listen to them. Subliminal songs, surrounding you and sneaking up on you. Stealth-like. The eleven songs on Carrie & Lowell make a really strong team. "Death With Dignity" opens the album, and Sufjan goes staright to the point with his lyrics: 'Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I'm afraid to be near you / And I don't know where to begin..... Further he goes on 'I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end...'. The mother not being a real mother is forgiven. Even though there were plenty of reasons not to do so. In "Should Have Known Better" he sings, 'When I was three, three maybe four / She left us at that video store / Be my rest, be my fantasy', and he continues: 'When I was three, and free to explore / I saw her face on the back of the door / Be my rest, be my fantasy'. But he then sings 'I should have wrote a letter / And grieve what I happen to grieve', and then he concludes with 'Don't back down: nothing can be changed / Cantilever bridge, the drunken sailor / My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination'. After death comes birth, bringing new life. And hope.
The lyrics of Carrie & Lowell brings up childhood memories and adult points of view. Stevens revisits times and places, and he focuses on images from the past, from when he travelled from his father's base in Michigan to Carrie and Lowell's base in Eugene, Oregon (as in the title track and in "Eugene"). The mood and colour of the music on this record has got a lot in common with Seven Swans, but almost all the time the trademark sound of Sufjan Stevens is present. Like we have learned to know it, and love it through all of his records. "Fourth of July" is another key-track, being a highly personal song which 'takes place' by Carrie's deathbed. 'The evil it spread like a fever ahead / It was night when you died, my firefly / What could I have said to raise you from the dead? / Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?'. A lot of the lyrics feels like it could've been a conversation between mother and son:
'Well you do enough talk
My little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?
Or the Fourth of July?
We're all gonna die
Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I'm sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles'
"Fourth of July" is powerful with its calm presence and strong lyrics. 'Shall we look at the moon, my little loon / Why do you cry? / Make the
most of your life, while it is rife / While it is light...'. This song, well all the songs on the album have got it all. About the troubles and fragility of relations and relationship.
"No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" is painstakingly diffuse - and direct; twisted and turbulent: 'I'll drive
that stake through the center of my heart / Lonely vampire / Inhaling its fire / I'm chasing the dragon too far... There's blood on that blade / Fuck me, I'm falling apart'. The closing
track, "Blue Bucket of Gold" is a magic closure to a fabulously gripping album. The songs and their arrangements are delicious and geniusly done. Vocals, piano, guitars, banjo, and some tender backing instrumentation. Simple, sparse, saturated with emotions. To quote The Guardian's Dave Eggers: '[Carrie & Lowell] features some of the most beautiful music ever made about loss, and some of the most direct explorations of death ever recorded. It is a brutal, extremely sad, relentlessly wrenching record that, because it's so exquisitely crafted, you might keep on a loop for days.' Yes, I'll stick with this album for a while. It's gloomy, yes for sure, but it is not totally exhausting with its personal, inner pain. It is not a death mass. It's about death, but it's about life as well. It is about shadows and light. On "Carrie & Lowell" - the title song - Sufjan sings: 'Under the pear tree / Shadows and light conspiring', while "Fourth of July"
ends with the line 'We're all gonna die'. But like Dylan sang it: 'Death is not the end'.
Copyright © 2015 Håvard Oppøyen