Sufjan Stevens reconciles life, love in new album

Emma Dahl

Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ first full-length album in five years. It marks his return to the beautiful folk roots that distinguished some of his older releases, but it’s much more stripped down and devoid of the creative instrumentation that characterized works such as Illinois or Michigan. It’s also a significant departure from his most recent release, the very electronic Age of Adz. There’s a reason for the quiet and subtle style of the album: It’s a very personal collection of music, with every track inspired by and telling of Stevens’ fractured relationship with his mother, the titular Carrie. It’s an album that goes beyond a straightforward production of art; it serves a very personal purpose for Stevens.

In order to better understand Carrie & Lowell, you need to understand Stevens’ history with his mother. She left her children with their father when Stevens was only a year old, mainly because she understood that she wasn’t capable of taking care of them. She suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism and substance abuse for much of her adult life. As a result, her communication with her children was often sporadic and shallow. When Stevens was about five, she married Lowell; these were some of her most stable years, and Stevens and his siblings would spend their summers with their mother and stepfather in Eugene, Ore. These were golden times, and Stevens remembers them fondly. Unfortunately, Carrie and Lowell divorced after five years of marriage, and her relationship with her children returned to its unstable state. She died in 2012, and Carrie & Lowell is the direct product of Stevens’ grief and catharsis surrounding her death.

The album tiptoes through Stevens’ childhood. Every track contains a microcosm of Stevens’ summers spent in Oregon; the lyrics blur the lines between fantasy and fact, religion and myth, responsibility and innocence, happy memories and thoughts of suicide. There are countless references to locations in Oregon, imagery of hot and sticky summer days, of quiet suburban moments amid the whirring of air conditioners. The music invokes emotions of neglect and loss, but also a slow process of reconciliation and, ultimately, a sense of forgiveness. As Stevens said of the album in an interview for Pitchfork.com, “[Carrie & Lowell] is not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”

While the style of the music is beautiful, simple and clean, I would never label this record as easy listening; it’s a difficult emotional journey if you listen carefully to each track and let Stevens’ dark lyrics sink in. As Stevens himself warned, you shouldn’t listen to the album unless you’re ready to understand what it’s really about and experience his broken childhood. But the album has an important lesson, and Stevens summarized it as follows: “I quickly learned that you don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering, and that, in spite of the dysfunctional nature of your family, you are an individual in full possession of your life.”

Carrie & Lowell is a reminder that we are not defined by our relationships, by what our family history implies we should be. It’s a reminder that love surrounds you, even though it often might be difficult to see or feel. It’s a reminder to forgive, to reconcile and to rediscover that love before it’s too late.