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Carrie & Lowell touches on Sufjan Stevens’ sensitive side

Undelivered musical letters to a loved one

Sufjan Stevens is back. This time, he’s got a quiet album full of memories and reflections.

The story of a bipolar, schizophrenic, drug-addict mother is delivered by Sufjan Stevens in more peaceful terms than one thinks possible. The pain Stevens experienced while being frequently abandoned by his sick mother is rehashed on the album Carrie & Lowell, which was released on March 31.

According to a NPR review of Carrie and Lowell, music critic Will Hermes, “For a guy known for his gentle sound, Sufjan Stevens explores pretty rough terrain” on his seventh studio album. The second track on the album, “Should Have Known Better,” details in a simple, haunting folk-tune the story of abandonment. In this song, Stevens says, “When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store.”

Though the song starts off on a melancholic note, it becomes more upbeat towards the end. The music increases in tempo while maintaining a soft, calm tone, which acts as a transition seamlessly from heartbreak into joy. He says, “Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing,” and explains that out of darkness came his niece who illuminates his life.

Not only does this album explore Stevens’ relationship with his mother, it focuses on the strong relationship he was able to establish with Lowell Brams, who was married to his mother for five years. According to Pitchfork, a Chicago-based music critique and commentary website, Brams runs Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty.

“Eugene” is one of the songs that expresses Stevens’ family dynamic while growing up. In this ballad, which is based on the music from a single finger-picked guitar, he sweetly mentions a trip to Emerald Park with Brams, who he says is “the man who taught [him] to swim” and named him Subaru because he “couldn’t quite say [his] first name.”

Unlike the previous albums in which Stevens showcased his talents as a musician with the ability to brilliantly play multiple instruments, Carrie & Lowell is mostly full of ballads that utilizes a more stripped back, acoustic sound. Because of the subject matter of the album, this musical approach executes a more intimate tone.

Similarly, there is a stark contrast between the soft, tranquil music in this album compared to the darker, morbid lyrics. In “Fourth of July,” the most repeated phrase is “we’re all gonna die,” which is even more powerful with the eerie piano playing and the distant quality of Stevens’ voice.

Towards the end of the record, “John My Beloved” is heard, which is another track with one, continuous tone that drips with sorrow. Stevens sings that he is “a man with a heart that offends, with its lonely and greedy demands,” and ends the song with a deep breath. The choice to leave in this breath signifies the belief that the creation of such an emotional album was a task Stevens found difficult. However, due to its personal significance, the breath expresses Stevens’ relief.

Carrie & Lowell seems to be the series of letters to his mother that Stevens did not write to her when she was still alive. Whether the album is a coping mechanism or a simple reflection of past events, Stevens clearly turns the most broken, hurt-filled memories into beautifully complex and moving pieces.


Photo: Press Release