Not since Seven Swans has Sufjan Stevens put out such a confessional, introspective, and heartfelt record. Even more, while Seven Swans was heartfelt and confessional, it was a generalization of those feelings of life, loss, and love. Carrie & Lowell is an album of grief pulled straight from Sufjan’s own life. The album is named after Stevens’ mom and stepdad, and just from the album artwork alone you get the feeling of sitting on a couch looking through an old family album as Sufjan’s words sing explanations to the pages we leaf through. It’s a beautiful record that could very well be the best Sufjan Steven’s album to date.
At first listen you get a feeling of sparseness and vast space, but that feeling is only temporary as you go through “Death With Dignity” once again. The gently picked strings give way to background vocals that seem to hang in the air. Piano joins the proceedings and indeed adds a royal dignity to the melancholy. “Should Have Known Better” has a similar feel. “I should have known better/To see what I could see/My black shroud/Holding down my feelings/A pillar for my enemies” Stevens’ sings as a confession to the guilt and regret grief can cause. Just as you think the song may get too maudlin the song picks up with a chorus of vocals and the music becomes almost playful. Even in the most morose, Sufjan Stevens has the ability to bring you up from the depths and hover you above it all. “All Of Me Wants All Of You” is delicate and vulnerable, yet you don’t feel the need to protect the voice singing. In some ways, you become the vulnerable one in the presence of such a strong, sturdy soul.
There’s a directness and honesty on Carrie & Lowell I haven’t heard on an album since The Antlers’ heartbreaking Hospice album. There was overwhelming grief and emotion throughout that record, and Stevens’ employs the confessional lyricism and almost chamber pop orchestration that Hospice used, and to stunning affect. Sufjan was doing that kind of bedroom chamber music way before The Antlers, but after the last few years it’s good to hear that Sufjan Stevens hasn’t forgotten the beauty of subtlety.
There’s not much else I can say about this album. There isn’t a misstep here. “Eugene”, “Fourth Of July”, “Carrie & Lowell”, “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”, and the beautiful closer “Blue Bucket Of Gold” are all masterpieces in heartbreak and memory. Carrie & Lowell is a beautiful memory. It’s a heartfelt dedication from a grieving son to the parents he loved very much.