Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’ first release since 2010’s Age of Adz has the singer-songwriter going in the opposite direction that Adz laid out. Carrie & Lowell is a simplified, but heart-breaking return to Stevens’ folk roots, this album feels more akin to 2004’s Seven Swans than any of his subsequent releases.
In his previous albums Michigan and Illinois, Sufjan laid out a biography of place and people through his music; charting local histories and stories, then reinventing or retelling them in his own way. Age of Adz is his foray into electronica, a branching out into unknown territory for Sufjan. Age of Adz is Sufjan Stevens’ Kid A – an unexpected and wholly different masterwork in comparison to his other albums. In contrast to Age of Adz which is a complex composition, Carrie & Lowell is an example of an album that strips away all the extra flourishes; here the listener won’t find flutes and trumpets filling in the compositions like on past works, neither will they find any metaphorical or historiographical lyrical content relating to place. Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ most personal album. Named after his mother and step-father, the album was written after his mother’s death, who had previously abandoned him and his siblings when they were young. Instead of charting a history of place, Sufjan is charting his own history here, repurposing it to create the most beautiful and heart-wrenching album of the year.
The album starts with Stevens’ announcing his difficulty in writing and releasing this material, as he sings “I don’t know where to begin” in “Death With Dignity”, a brisk and melodic acoustic piece with flourishes of piano and Stevens’ usual haunting vocal delivery, which rises at times to a gorgeous falsetto. This song transcends all of his previous work alone; if there’s one criticism to level at Sufjan Stevens it is perhaps that his music is often busy to the point of distraction, with flutes and trumpets filling in his compositions, and in the case of Age of Adz electronic beats. Yet Carrie & Lowell relishes in its simplicity, in its almost anti-innovative take to music. Carrie & Lowell is so personal it feels like listening to a diary, and with something that personal the compositions don’t need to be complicated, they don’t even need to be new or innovative, they just need to feel true to the content being expressed in the lyrics, and the album does this beautifully, and it makes for some enthralling listening.
“Should Have Known Better” continues in this line of simplicity, but with the added spice of gorgeous instrumentation and vocal harmonization. This album isn’t really built as a single machine, but if there is one track that could get repeated radio play it is “Should Have Known Better”. The song itself though is heartbreaking, as Sufjan sings in the chorus, “when I was three, three maybe four, she left us at the video store”, lyrics charting the tumultuous relationship Stevens had with his often absent mother.
The stand-out track on this album though is “The Only Thing”, it’s quiet, personal, as well as lyrically and musically accomplished. This track rates right up there with any Sufjan Stevens track to date. In fact, not only this track, but this entire album is Stevens’ most accomplished work. That’s high praise; this is the same artist who released Illinois and Age of Adz. If anything, Carrie & Lowell has cemented Sufjan Stevens as not just an indie darling, but as truly one of the purest talents working today.
By Cory Zydyk