Posted on April 2nd, 2015 (11:00 am) by Casey Bauer

His melodies are gorgeously bleak and his lyrics certainly aren’t the worst collection of words we’ve ever heard. Raw and uncensored, Sufjan Stevens has returned with Carrie & Lowell, a deeply intimate and lyrically ambitious album that proves he never once lost his acoustic chops.

An amalgamation of peculiar projects since 2005 left a lot of fans baffled; were we ever going to see the sensitive, folksy side of Stevens again? In the five-year “break” between experimental album Age of Adz and 2005’s Illinois, Stevens filled his time with a collection of B-sides, the festive Songs For Christmas, and a collaborative film titled “The BQE.” Feeling oddly like a Wes Anderson film at times, "The BQE" is filled with rapid typography at the beginning, bright colors, and a strange sense of “what am I watching right now?” The film showcases one of New York's most hated strips of highway. It is a beautifully composed, yet emotionally detached project that sadly raised more eyebrows than supporters, despite Stevens' lovely composition. Following this was yet another collaborative effort that was fine, but once again left fans waiting for something a bit more familiar.

Call him excessive or even distracted, but Sufjan Stevens has never been one to sit still for too long. He’s a man so interested in exploring everything there is to explore that he once aspired to write an album for all fifty states, and even admitted to sometimes expressing more of an interest in the subject of a song than writing the song itself. This gives Stevens an admirably diverse resume, proving he’s capable of creating everything from the underwhelmingly dull to the overwhelmingly intimate. This time around, Carrie & Lowell sprouts as a delicate disparity from recent works. It is exactly what we were looking for.

Named after his mother and stepfather, Stevens wrote Carrie & Lowell as a way to cope with the difficult relationship he shared with the two parents. Stevens’ mother left him and his siblings when he was just an infant and returned years later, having remarried Lowell and suffering from schizophrenia, alcoholism and substance abuse. Needless to say, Carrie was a conflicting person in Stevens’ life, a notion reflected countless times throughout the album. We, as the mere observers, don’t quite know what to with ourselves as we witness Stevens relive childhood memories from summers in Oregon, and how he aches from behind gentle plucks of a guitar. Carrie & Lowell is an emotional investment; one that requires an empathy that, if it doesn’t seep out initially, will undoubtedly overflow about half way through. The album wraps up, and suddenly we need to find someone to hug.

That’s not to say Carrie & Lowell is an indulgent, “exhibition” of sorts (something Stevens denies was his intention). In fact, it’s rather inspiring to see an artist so unabashedly transparent. Stevens’ pain is real, and moments of desperation like, “how do I live with your ghost?” and “I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head,” show us that this record is a way for Stevens to cope with and sift through a relationship that was too short for him to fully process.

Carrie & Lowell also proves to be a time capsule of sorts, revealing moments of a childish nature that Stevens hasn’t quite lost. “Eugene” is one of the most beautifully crafted representations of this as we witness his clumsy hands breaking an ashtray because, as he murmurs, “I just wanted to be near you.” This motif holds the song together, depicting an innocent desire for paternal love, something he craves even now, years later. The song isn’t all buckets of feelings however; we’re grateful for small gifts like the line, “The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name,” and “he called me Subaru.” It’s also comforting to know that Lowell is still an important figure in Stevens’ life, even after the death of Carrie.

Carrie & Lowell couldn’t be more intimate than if Sufjan Stevens whispered the whole record in our ears himself. As a result, it's not gonna be something we play all the time, rather, when the mood is dark, yet introspective enough. Consisting mostly of piano tickles and guitar arpeggios, Carrie & Lowell is barren, and makes us question how Stevens could possibly get up on stage night after night and sing these words in front of a crowd. He claims that it’s therapeutic and helps him to deconstruct his thoughts, while we wipe our eyes and wish we could sound this pretty and sad at the same time.

Track List:

  1. Death With Dignity
  2. Should Have Known Better
  3. All Of Me Wants All Of You
  4. Drawn To The Blood
  5. Eugene
  6. Fourth Of July
  7. The Only Thing
  8. Carrie & Lowell
  9. John My Beloved
  10. No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross
  11. Blue Bucket of Gold
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell Review
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

83 / 100
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