It’s only been a little more than three years since Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell came out, yet to me it feels like a lifetime ago. Such is the impact of a great album on the life of a music nerd. It’s hard to remember life before Carrie and Lowell, before Sufjan toured around the country with crystal displays of the Oregon Coast and gave us all a fresh, refined taste of the emotive, sensitive folk we had come to love on albums of his like “Michigan.”
I can still remember biking to the record store to buy the album, pulling it out of my bike bag at the restaurant I worked at. When I pulled off the plastic wrap a picture slipped out, that of Sufjan sitting at the kitchen table when he was a young child and staring at the camera, his mother seemingly working behind him. Staring at the photo I had a first taste of the album’s intimacy. Sufjan had always been an artist I felt inextricably connected with, and though this album was available to everyone, I felt for a second that this was a personal gift to me from the cosmos.
Sufjan, though well known for his emotionally resonant music, had never before made something so intensely personal as “Carrie and Lowell.” His past albums like “Illinoise” and “Michigan” dealt with heavy subjects such as poverty, displacement, despair, and even serial killers, but none gave us an immediate, relevant approach to the personal life of the singer. Although we were granted stories of Sufjan meeting friends and lovers at summer camp or remembering a dear friend who passed from cancer, we hardly got a glance into the present day workings of Sufjan’s life.
In one of my favorite Sufjan songs, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!,” Sufjan shows his tendency to paint his younger life through the veil of myth:
“Thinking outrageously I write in cursive
I hide in my bed with the lights on the floor
Wearing three layers of coats and leg warmers
I see my own breath on the face of the door
Oh I am not quite sleeping
Oh I am fast in bed
There on the wall in the bedroom creeping
I see a wasp with her wings outstretched”
To get an idea of Sufjan’s onstage storytelling charm, check out his live performance of the song at Austin City Limits:
But things changed a bit for Sufjan on “Carrie and Lowell.” The mythologizing, loving, romantic Sufjan is all there, though this time the story shifts from strident bits of Americana and youthful romanticism into a place of despair, loss, and hope following the death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie. The album is named for her and her former husband (also Sufjan’s step-dad), who Sufjan grew close to over the years of his childhood. Through the album, we see their trips to the Oregon coast and how the yawning void of time and memory can open up upon the loss of a loved one.
Back in 2015 I was knocked to the floor by Sufjan’s album. I had been a fan of his for a long time, often rewinding back through his first few albums on road trips and comparing favorite tracks with friends. Many of his observations – about spiritual life and travel and storytelling – resonated with me. I saw him as a guide and a beacon of light in a musical world that had grown stale and tasteless.
Sufjan’s recordings sound like nobody else. That’s part of the appeal. His soft, slightly raspy voice, fast-picked guitar lines, and ambient piano form a sonic landscape all his own. Even when he was writing freak-out electronica on “Age of Adz,” his left-field album before “Carrie and Lowell,” he somehow made it accessible to me. When I think back I recall the emotions of “Impossible Soul,” his 20 minute plus epic about navigating your own personal chasm to find a place in this world. Though it was wildly different from his previous releases, it still all made sense in the wild world of Sufjan Stevens.
Sufjan’s return to sensitive folk brought a more personal bent on “Carrie and Lowell.” The opener “Death with Dignity” dives into Sufjan’s mythology as he sings of forests in the deserts, several animals like chimney swifts and mares, and spiritual visions like apparitions coming to him at night. Then a direct statement cuts through it all, Sufjan’s face coming through the cloud of myth: I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you.”
We find more of this active voice on “Carrie and Lowell” than ever before, which seems to be the coping mechanism that Sufjan needs to cope with this situation. “All of Me Wants All of You” finds Sufjan dealing directly with the image of his mother in the hospital. He views her there, lying in the hospital, allowing us to see a personal moment in his experience right before he mythologizes it, saying “But in this light, you look like Poseidon.”
Blending the personal and the mythological is what Sufjan does so well, and “Carrie and Lowell” is a profound statement because of it. We grant our lives meaning by letting them enter into the great stories of mankind: the struggle of men and gods in a strange and ever-changing universe, where every person must decide what their own relationship with the journey is. Sufjan’s songs melt into that great melting pot of stories and ideas, letting us dive in too if we want to.