March 31, 2015
The extremely personal nature of the record forces Stevens to bare his soul which is something that reflects in the calm, sparse, folky tone of the record. It has the same, almost lo-fi, quality of his earlier record "Seven Swans", but may be even more reminiscent of Elliott Smith's early work. Stevens' calm plucking and subdued vocals echo the ghost of Smith at his peak.
This is immediately apparent on the album's opener Death with Dignity. A beautiful melody carries the vocals that almost literally breathe life into the lyrics in which Stevens makes peace with his mother('s memory).
Throughout the album Sufjan Stevens weaves together memories, dreams, regrets and struggles. Heartfelt and personal, the record sounds much more like therapy than ever before. In the past, Stevens had the tendency to 'dress up' his music with spiritual and mythological imagery but for the most part the imagery is kept to a minimum on "Carrie & Lowell".
In the wake of tragedy and loss, confusion takes hold and the emergence of big questions become painfully present. On Drawn to the Blood, Stevens searches for purpose and meaning through religion while the impressive Eugene recounts happier times of his youth.
While the struggle, the confusion, the pain, etc. all are very obviously present, what strikes me most is the love and care that eminates from the record. Despite the intermittent relationship with his mother and having only spotted memories of her, Stevens writes and sings about wanting to be near her, taking away her suffering and being like her. On Fourth of July he uses countless metaphors to describe her importance to him.
This balancing between the sweetess of love, the mess of pain and loss and the wondering and confusion brings out the core of Sufjan Stevens' music. He asks real questions and finds hsi way through the record. You can almost hear how all the turbulence that led up to the album produced a creative process and outlet that seems to have calmed down Stevens. That is why I referred to "Carrie & Lowell" as a personal therapy earlier on.
It's a highly impressive record that echoes the brilliance of Elliott Smith in its manner of expression but at the same time really defines Sufjan Stevens. "Carrie & Lowell" really is a testament and it reminds me of a famous quote by Jackie Robinson, who said: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." This seems to hold truth for Stevens as the impact of his mother and stepfather are felt throughout the album and Stevens recounts their impact, whether directly or indirectly, as defining to the person he is now. At the same time, this album is going to impact many in a significant way, which means Stevens himself has the ability to impact other lives as well.
I'm not entirely sure if I'd call this Stevens' best album to date at "Seven Swans" and "Illinois(e)" still hold a special place in my heart but I would go as far as saying this is his most impressive album to date because of the meaning it has to Stevens himself and the way he communicates that importance through the songs on the record.