Sufjan Stevens – Carrie And Lowell review

Secret Meeting score: 91

by Philip Moss

Concept albums have been present in music for over 70 years and were particularly prevalent in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds and Pink Floyd – The Wall are frequently touted examples. But, if you take Peter Blake’s magical artwork away from Sgt Pepper, is there really a ‘concept’ beyond the first two songs running into each other and the title track being reprised at the end? If you take the enchanting sound away from Pet Sounds, is there really a theme being carried or a story to be told? Could an outsider actually tell you what the gist of The Wall is, without a quick Wiki search, or, some muso historian explaining it to them? I’m not so sure.

However, in stark contrast, Sufjan Stevens’ seventh studio album is a concept record in every sense of the word – one of the very highest order. The title, Carrie and Lowell, carries the names of Sufjan’s deceased mother and stepfather; the artwork – a faded, candid, cracked photograph of them both, is lifted directly from the family photo album; the lyrics are nothing short of melancholic poetry that autobiographically bares all from a childhood that was one of sorrow and neglect; and the music – some of which was recorded directly onto his iPhone back in Oregon where much of the childhood tales are set, is the sound of a man, quietly, in his own time, coming to terms with the past as he tinkers on his Fisher-Price ‘My First Keyboard’.

Despite being an artist who is as well known for his technicolour outfits as he is for his technicolour music – his compositions often compromising elaborate orchestrations, wild electronics and complex arrangements – here, they are simple, echoing the lonely feel of the album’s cover. Sufjan’s lullaby-like voice is up front, with the sound of his reflections being thoughtfully recited as the focal point.

Opener, Death with Dignity, sets the tone. In both first person and present tense, Sufjan directly addresses his mother – ‘Spirit of my silence, I can hear you. But, I’m afraid to be near you.’ Although he’s carried her ‘apparition’ with him, time doesn’t necessarily heal old wounds. Not completely. His mind still isn’t totally settled. Some wounds are just too deep, and there’s clearly an inner conflict that has raged on into adulthood despite many of the stories chronicled occurring before he left kindergarten- perhaps emphasising why the ‘formative years’ are called such. Later in the song, he does accept – regardless of the troubled relationship they’ve endured, both while she was alive and since her untimely death – with the line, ‘I forgive you, mother… I long to be near you’. The listener feels that the trigger to finally bare his side of the story is more about him finding forgiveness and understanding for her treatment of him, rather than for the trauma he endured.

On Should Have Known Better, some of the causes of these traumas are laid out. Firstly, at just three, possibly four years old, he was abandoned at the video store. He was made to feel like his mother had cast a demon’s ‘spell’ on him. He was ‘free to explore’ without paternal supervision, and felt like his feelings could never be ‘trusted’ as they were suppressed due to the lack of motherly affection, which he craved (note: Carrie, as she’s referred to in the title and throughout the record, is never called mum). He also mourns, ‘I should have wrote a letter’ (one imagines to cathartically support himself through these grievances), but, all of this – unlike the opening track – is told in the past tense.

Regardless of the justified pain and anger that Stevens’ mother had caused him, Fourth of July documents the night he spent at the hospital as he watched her die. Over an eerie synthesiser hum and a simple, repetitive keyboard pattern, he questions if he’s right to feel that anger – ‘Sitting at the bed with the halo at your head.’ She’s his mother after all. Then, the song shifts perspective and, through an imagined conversation, his mother speaks. Now it’s over for her, he tries to justify the treatment – ‘I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best’. But, deep down, he knows it’s not the case and in Drawn to the Blood he unveils he’s only ever craved one thing – ‘My prayer has always been love.’

Carrie and Lowell is a mature reflection on childhood that only an adult could make. As the record draws to a close, you get the feeling that much of the weight is starting to lift and that this is the sound of a man who is beginning to come to terms with this emotional burden. Yes, the scars that gave birth to the record are evidently still wide. But you get the impression that they are at least starting to draw in. For Sufjan’s sake, I just hope they continue to heal.