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"Amethyst and flowers on the table / is it real or a fable?"
Real or fable is a question that remains unanswered seven albums into the world of Sufjan Stevens. For all the stories woven around the John Wayne Gacys, Casimir Pulaskis, Abrahams, Men of Steel, all of the places like Michigan, Illinois(e), Chicago and the BQE that Stevens uses for his songs, there's also the sisters, brothers, friends, mother, father and lovers that he drops into his lyrics that have always hinted at personal stories to be told. But there's always been a feeling that Sufjan has kept us at arm's length to some extent; yes, he's invited us into his universe of signs and wonders but any soul-baring has been dressed in myth and symbolism.
The title of Carrie & Lowell immediately seems like a change of position for Sufjan Steven. Named for his mother and stepfather, it's perhaps the most explicit reference to his personal life so far and once the listener delves into this incredibly sad and moving record about love, death and family it becomes apparent that we're edging closer to knowing the real Sufjan Stevens - closer, but not quite at the point where he'll accept an arm round the shoulder. Looking at the cover photo for Carrie & Lowell you can see where Stevens gets the taste for distance from: while stepfather Lowell (who gets a touching tribute on 'Eugene') stares directly into the camera, Carrie is looking away, eyes partially closed, a figure neither we nor Stevens ever really knew.
Carrie left her family when Sufjan was just one year old; suffering from alcoholism, depression and schizophrenia, Carrie's relationship with her son was often conducted at distance, save for occasional time spent in Oregon by Stevens as a child. Those holidays obviously had an impact, though, as place names from the state appear across the album whether it's tenderly on 'Eugene' or not quite so on 'All of Me Wants All of You'. But Carrie died in 2012 and we find Sufjan dealing with this loss alongside the effects it had on his own relationships and loves from the moment 'Death With Dignity' starts Carrie & Lowell with a moment of closure.
The much-touted return to Stevens' musical "folk roots" of Seven Swans - his career high water mark - suits the naked emotion of the lyrics. While the supporting cast includes the likes of Laura Viers, Sean Carey and Thomas Bartlett, their contribution is perfectly muted, subtly delivered so as not to crowd the hushed delivery often missed from records, however wonderful, such as The Age of Adz. "And I don't know where to begin," sighs Sufjan on that album opener/closure as bright acoustic guitars provide some guiding light as he gets to the point where he can release and admit "I forgive you, mother / I can hear you / and I long to be near you." As a keening pedal steel leads us into a beautiful outro with the heart-stopping line "you'll never see us again," there's a feeling that while Stevens is able to grieve, there's still a question of forgetting to overcome. It's hinted at through the use of the nomadic chimney swift in the lyrics of 'Death With Dignity', a nod to Carrie leaving and Stevens' own perambulate upbringing and on 'Should Have Known Better' it becomes writ large.
On that song Stevens sings of a "black shroud" getting in the way of expressing his feelings, admitting he's not a "go-getter" while hazily remembering being left at a video store by Carrie at the age of 3 or 4. It gets darker as the song progresses, a banjo dirge lifted by a chorus of female voices, and we begin to find out how Carrie's life and death has affected Sufjan's relationships and life. In a bridge punctuated by lovely electronic flutters, he sings of empty feelings and battling for a reason to live, the first time we've really heard him express doubts over keeping going. It's a shock to the system, to hear Stevens sing so starkly free of Christian, Greek or American tales, and it's not the only time you might reel from the honesty. Yet on this track Stevens appears saved by the light and love of his niece, and a slightly more obtuse nod to the importance of family love through Psalm 133 and a mention of the "rose of Aaron's beard." Stevens goes back and forth on Carrie & Lowell, though; 'In the Shadow of the Cross' deals quite openly with Stevens' experimentation with drugs and sex, perhaps a way of trying to be closer to, or understanding, this figure called Carrie. While the "valley of the Dalles" reference brings some levity to the drug abuse through a neat play-on-words, the song, and to some extent the album, hinges on the devastating utterance of "fuck me I'm falling apart." As much a plea as an admission of the state he's in, somehow made more honest and real by the whirr of a fan in Stevens' home in the background of the track made up simply of voice and guitar, every little myth he's created falls away in this one line. All the swifts, meadowlarks, hawks and mares, all the mentions of Oregon, the biblical Aaron and Elijah and the Greek Erebus, the visions of blood and Daniel's apocalypse, all this plays second fiddle to this one, gigantic moment where Stevens admits that he's broken and helpless. If he wanted to know how his mother ever felt at her lowest ebb, he's doing a damn good job of getting there.
Stevens also gets some experience of how Carrie left his father and Lowell feeling. The best song on Carrie & Lowell is 'All of Me Wants All of You' and again it paints a picture of a broken man. Sufjan has always had a knack for combining snapshots of the everyday with the fantastical, and imbuing both with the same amount of musical love and wonder. With the line "you checked your texts while I masturbated" (matching Annie Clark's "take out the garbage, masturbate" for enlivening the mundane) Stevens immediately sets up a relationship that's tainted by distance and problems, and it doesn't get any more positive from there. While the title is a plea for a lover to give their all in a relationship, the shivering, frosty beauty that accompanies one of Stevens' best-ever vocals, soft yet bursting with emotion as he sings "traced your outline with my shoe / empty outline changed my view / now all of me thinks less of you." Whether this is aimed at Carrie or the named Manelich (or both) is up for debate but Stevens has been left damaged by both relationships.
What has remained constant throughout Stevens' recording career is the importance of faith and family, and they of course make an appearance on Carrie & Lowell. As previously mentioned, 'Eugene' is a song for Lowell Brams where Stevens sings "like a father he led community water on my head / and he called me 'Subaru' / and now I want to be near you," and that bond continues today with that father figure a director of the Asthmatic Kitty record label, while Sufjan's niece provides salvation and focus on both 'Should Have Known Better' and 'Fourth of July'. But the trauma of Sufjan's early years returns in 'The Only Thing' where thoughts of suicide and cutting clash with mentions of Daniel (from the Book of Daniel) suggesting Stevens found his childhood under his father and stepmother as some kind of captivity....yet "blind faith and God's grace" seem to carry him through, his belief in a Christian god seeming to remain unshaken, much like the journey to the final sacramental moment of 'The Transfiguration' from Seven Swans. Again, on the title track, with Erebus on his back and vivid imaginings of a Carrie coping on Thorazine as an apocalyptic flood and floors covered in blood abound.
But everything returns to Carrie in the end; on 'John The Beloved' when Stevens sings "I am a man with a heart that offends / with its lonely and greedy demands" one wonders if he'd be singing it if Carrie was well and had stayed, especially when he asks, amid the sparse and sad funeral beat, "and when I am dead / come visit my bed." It's a song unlike few other Sufjan Stevens songs, just the slow percussion, a slight drift of piano and a whispered vocal making it the most gothic entry to his canon. And when the count-in of 'Blue Bucket of Gold' signals the end of Carrie & Lowell, ambient noise and strings subtly swooping around truly stunning harmonies (the influence of Viers, Carey and Bartlett can't be underestimated in the record's choral reveries), the questions that Stevens asks feel like they won't ever have a definitive answer: "raise your right hand / tell me you want me in your life / or raise your red flag / just as I want you in my life."
Carrie & Lowell is a record without answers, heavy with doubt despite Stevens' faith in God and at least a willingness on his part to continue to believe that family and love and relationships are worth it despite the traumas, darkness and heartache: "What's the point of singing songs / if they'll never even hear you?" asks the singer on 'Eugene'....yet he continues to sing, to question everything around him. As long as Stevens continues to pursue the unanswerable and chase down myths and ghosts, he'll continue to make incredible music. Carrie & Lowell is just the latest in a long line of unimpeachable achievements.
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