Carrie & Lowell
[Asthmatic Kitty; 2015]
An air of mystery has surrounded much of Sufjan Steven’s prolific career. His success is due in large part to his ability to write memorable stories with universal themes that connect with a wide-range of listeners, yet there has always been an ambiguity in whether the stories he tells are based on real life experiences or just plots he’s pulled from old issues of the Chicago Tribune and The Detroit Free Press. I suppose it doesn’t really matter if a song is drawn straight from a songwriter’s life – Bruce Springsteen never worked in a factory, Bob Dylan never worked on Maggie’s Farm, and Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno (that we know of).
Regardless, the listening experience is always going to be heightened when you know it’s drawn from the songwriter’s real life experiences, which has made Sufjan’s questionably personal songs all the more confounding. Did he really lose a childhood friend to a wasp bite? Did he ever live in a trailer park and own a snowmobile? Was he ever a best man, and did he in fact wear a tux that was a size too small?
2010’s Age of Adz was Sufjan’s first admission that some of the material was drawn from his own real life break-up with his longtime girlfriend and his struggle with a viral infection that affected his nervous system. Even in this case, his personal life is buried just beneath the surface of an album that tells the story of self-proclaimed prophet and artist Royal Robertson. This façade allowed Sufjan to write songs of schizophrenia and heartbreak without really revealing his own struggles.
If Age of Adz was a crack in the mystery that surrounds Sufjan, than 2015’s Carrie & Lowell is the line between reality and fiction being burst at the seams. Sufjan has officially stepped out of the shadows, baring his soul with reckless abandon. Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s mother and stepfather, is a rumination on death, exploring the regrets and depression that come with it. Sufjan has revealed in interviews that his mother struggled with substance abuse, drug addiction, and was both bipolar and schizophrenic. Sufjan’s abandonment issues arise early in the album on “Should Have Known Better” when he recalls “When I was three, three maybe four/ she left us at that video store.”
The photos adorning the record sleeve only further this feeling of disconnect, three photos of his mother, her eyes, the windows to her soul, closed in each. On “Eugene” he recalls a memory of a time when he accidentally knocked over her ashtray, following the confession with “I only wanted to be near you.” “Fourth of July” is Sufjan coming to terms with his loss and revealing his lifelong guilt for eventually leaving his tumultuous upbringing: “I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best/ Though it never felt right.” He later questions “I wonder did you love me at all?” on “The Only Thing.” The entire album rings like a modern take on John Lennon’s own psychoanalysis of his relationship with his mom on The Plastic Ono Band. Much like this classic, Carrie & Lowell is riveting, sincere, and heartbreaking.
“The Only Thing”:
As with any great Sufjan album (which is all of them), Carrie & Lowell is filled with common motifs. Mythology, demons, dragons, and fossils all intermingle, but the most powerful metaphor of all is the ghost of his mother that haunts each track. Even when he’s not singing specifically about her, he mentions an apparition or spirit lurking in the shadows. No matter what he does, the memory of his mother will always be in the background, looming. The production furthers this ghostly feeling. The album is reminiscent of Seven Swans in its stripped down approach, but Swans never sounded this cacophonous and jarring. Most of Sufjan’s work is extravagant and over-the-top with trumpets, strings, and in the case of Age of Adz, blaring synths, but Carrie & Lowell is understated. There is still a lot of magic going on in the background, but it’s unobtrusive and hiding below the surface, much like the memory of his mother.
“John My Beloved” is a perfect example of Sufjan’s discreet production:
This is more than just an album about his mother’s death – it’s Sufjan struggling with his own depression and feelings of emptiness. To suggest that Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan’s suicide note wouldn’t be an overstatement. Each song comes back to the realization that everything comes to an end. On “Should Have Known Better” he admits “No reason to live/ I’m a fool in a fetter,” and on “Eugene” he reveals “I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away.” In other songs he imagines what it would be like to drive off the edge of a canyon, ponders “Do I care if I survive this?” and reveals “There’s only a shadow of me; in a matter of speaking I’m dead.” The most shocking moment may be on “John My Beloved” when he sings “Fuck me, I’m falling apart.”
The most alarming aspect of this album is the idea that Sufjan Stevens struggles with depression. It’s unsettling to realize that a man who is so blessed with talent, both musically and mentally, is unhappy and has legitimately considered suicide. Much of his past work is so upbeat and happy – how could the guy who joyfully sang about a forefather zombie uprising be consumed with sadness? When I listen to Carrie & Lowell, I can’t help but think of fellow joy-maker Robin Williams and how unexpected it was to hear about his suicide. For the first time, I hope Sufjan’s songs are more fiction than fact.