Sufjan Stevens Carrie & Lowell Review

You will not hear a song on Carrie & Lowell without holding your breath the moment Sufjan speaks.
Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2015
Purchase: Sufjan's Website

8.2 / 10

Sufjan has stated that Carrie & Lowell is about giving and receiving love in a family. However, it would be more accurate to say the greatest emotion felt in Carrie & Lowell is the loss of love. Loss brought about by death, neglect, cowardice, and unreliability. The listener will feel this loss more acutely, the more familiar they are with the instrumental indulgence of The Age of Adz, All Delighted People, and Illinois. The usual menagerie of horns, strings, and electronics are conspicuously absent. Instead, the gentle coo of Sufjan’s voice against his acoustic guitar and the occasional keys are all we have left. It is a conscious regression to his even earlier material that he uses as a tool to re-experience his boyhood memories, and simultaneously invoke nostalgia in the listener for our earlier memories of Sufjan’s work.

There is a tension in Carrie & Lowell between its identity as an earnest memory dedicated to a lost loved one and a piece of art meant for consumption by the public. In both ways it succeeds, but it is hard to reconcile one with the other, since what Carrie & Lowell means to Sufjan is inaccessible to us as listeners. We can only process and critique the half of the piece that is art. The other half that is memorial only belongs to Sufjan. However, Carrie & Lowell overcomes this tension through Sufjan’s ability to make his experience interesting without letting go of it as specifically his experience.

“Should have Known Better” is particularly relatable. His regret at not exposing his feelings is physically palpable throughout the first half of the song in the desolate guitar arpeggios and haunting vocals, but as the story turns to acceptance of the past Sufjan finds himself able to give love forwards to his niece and the mood turns bright like a sunrise on a cold morning.

While his lyrics are the most immediate and brutally honest they have ever been, his instrumentation is its most sparse. This keeps the focus on Sufjan’s lyrics, but in songs like “All of Me Wants All of You” and “Drawn to the Blood,” the atmosphere is far too bleak and the pace is too glacial. They are like looking at old photographs where all the colour has faded away; leaving only the rough outlines. However, on “The Fourth of July,” “John My Beloved,” and “Blue Bucket of Gold” the effect works perfectly and Sufjan’s quiet, icy voice is show stopping set against the warm keys and acoustic guitar.

Although Sufjan’s experience of his family life is nothing to be desired, his presentation of it is penetrating and arresting. You will not hear a song on Carrie & Lowell without holding your breath the moment Sufjan speaks. His lyricism has taken several steps inward to reveal hurt from decades earlier with a glow as fragile as the early winter frost. It harkens back to one of Paul Simon’s most poignant lyrics: “Losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart. Everybody feels the wind blow.”