A collected memoir of his childhood, Sufjan returns to tackle burdensome feelings and memories with remarkable candour and honesty.
Sufjan Stevens has never been one to avoid his own life’s misfortunes. 2010’s Age of Adz became a very public treatise on his depression and physical illness. That album’s electronic posturing perhaps more than anything else a signal that Stevens had indeed lost confidence in, or at the very least grown tired of, his musical journey to that point. Carrie & Lowell sees a welcome return to his more familiar bare, minimal stripped back sound. However the subject matter remains “difficult” – the names from the album’s title are the first names of Stevens’ mother and stepfather while the songs a collected memoir of his childhood. Carrie walked out on the family when Stevens was only four – she suffered from schizophrenia and substance abuse. Often also homeless, she died in 2012 by which time Stevens did get to know her and visited her in hospital before her death. In a recent interview, Stevens made it clear “I’m not the victim here and I’m not seeking other peoples’ sympathy” and he heroically achieves this by recognising that everyone has lost someone close to them, and while the circumstances may be very different, the collective pain we all feel is universal.
Gentle acoustic guitars (often recalling Elliot Smith – most strikingly on ‘Drawn To The Blood’), whispered vocals, sparse piano and occasional percussion is all Stevens leans on as he lays his feelings and memories bare, with remarkable candour and honesty. ‘Fourth of July’ is an imagined conversation with his mother, who consoles him over her own death. In ‘’All Of Me Wants All Of You” he remembers masturbating while his partner checks their texts. “The Only Thing” considers suicide. It is not all darkness though. “Should Have Known Better” offers solace and hope “My brother had a daughter / The beauty she brings / Illumination” is a reminder to us all of the joy and spirit of life and living.
Ultimately this is an album about forgiveness, and trying to make sense of those things that are often the hardest to make sense of. It’s about our endless search for understanding and overcoming the challenges that life throws at us. Those that can look beyond the challenging theme will find a collection of songs rich in sensitivity, caring and a unique perspective on the human condition.