What do we do with death?
That’s the question skulking around Carrie & Lowell, indie outlier Sufjan Stevens’ spare, mournful, acoustic effort. It’s aroused and complicated by the fact that Stevens’ estranged and mentally ill mother had only sporadic contact with her son for a few summers when he was a young boy. She passed away from stomach cancer in 2012.
Though Stevens says he made peace with her before her passing, this vulnerably autobiographical album continues to unpack the shaping influence her tortured life, pocked and riddled with flaws, had on him.
“Death With Dignity” acknowledges the reality of death as the artist aches to have known his mother better and forgives her for her shortcomings (“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end”). And despite grappling with the idea that “there is nothing left … no reason to live,” “Should Have Known Better” has more to say about love transcending despair (“The beauty that she brings, illumination”). “Drawn to the Blood” struggles, Job-like, with the shock of loss (“How? How did this happen?/ … How? God of Elijah/ … For my prayer has always been love/What did I do to deserve this now?/ How did this happen?”), giving us this Christ-centric musing: “I’m drawn to the blood/The flight of a one-winged dove.”
“Fourth of July” warns, “We’re all gonna die,” then counsels, “Make the most of your life, while it is rife/While it is light.” Another lyric, perhaps an imagined confession from the perspective of Stevens’ mother, asks tenderly, “Did you get enough love, my little dove/Why do you cry?/And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best/Though it never felt right.” Friendship, longing, loneliness, love and death swirl on “John My Beloved,” with Stevens pleading, “Jesus, I need You, be near, come shield me/From fossils that fall on my head/There’s only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking, I’m dead.”
“Blue Bucket of Gold” asks to experience God’s transcendent power (“Lord, touch me with lightning”).
“There’s No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” pairs sexual allusions with a rebellious spirit and the album’s lone profanity (“Now that I fell into your arms/My only lover, give out to give in/ … Drag me to hell in the valley of the damned/ … Like a champion, get drowned to get laid/ … There’s blood on that blade, f— me, I’m falling apart”). “All of Me Wants All of You” includes the frank accusation, “You checked your texts while I masturbated.”
Lament devolves into intoxication on “Eugene” (“What’s left is only bittersweet/For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me/Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away/What’s the point of singing songs/If they’ll never even hear you?”). Emotional desolation invites suicidal thoughts on “The Only Thing” (“Do I care if I survive this?/Bury the dead where they’re found/In a veil of great surprises, I wonder, did you love me at all?/The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm/Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark”).
Talking about Carrie & Lowell (a title that names his mother and stepfather) in an interview with pitchfork.com, Sufjan Stevens says of its heartrending subject matter, “Don’t listen to this record if you can’t digest the reality of it. I’m being explicit about really horrifying experiences in my life, but my hope has always been to be responsible as an artist and to avoid indulging in my misery, or to come off as an exhibitionist. I don’t want to make the listener complicit in my vulnerable prose poem of depression, I just want to honor the experience. … At worst, these songs probably seem really indulgent. At their best, they should act as a testament to an experience that’s universal: Everyone suffers; life is pain; and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence, so deal with it.”
He then tries to connect the dots between his mother’s flaws and the music he makes, saying, “[Carrie] suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.”
All of those descriptors—manic contradiction, provocative, playful, frantic—will indeed help listeners understand Stevens’ haunting, jarring, erratic attempts to make sense of who his mother was and why her life still matters so much to him. Her love was obviously imperfect, exactly as some of the more raw moments on this album feel. Yet Carrie & Lowell nonetheless offers a beautiful, tragic, poignant testimony to the profound impact a mother has on the lives of her children.
A postscript: Continuing to speak with pitchfork.com, Sufjan Stevens says of the state of his Christian faith, “I still describe myself as a Christian, and my love of God and my relationship with God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith. Yes, the kingdom of Christianity and the Church has been one of the most destructive forces in history, and there are levels of bastardization of religious beliefs. But the unique thing about Christianity is that it is so amorphous and not reductive to culture or place or anything. It’s extremely malleable.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.