After the experimentalism and bombast of The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has returned with the stripped-down, heartbreakingly beautiful Carrie & Lowell, a nakedly intimate album that is possibly his greatest work yet. Stevens attempts to come to terms with the myriad emotions resulting from the death of his birth mother (the “Carrie” in the title), with whom he had an unusual relationship; present-day stabs at attempting to comprehend their relationship are intertwined with memories of childhood summer visits to Oregon, often accompanied by only a delicately finger-picked guitar and Stevens’s soft cooing voice. It is easy to get wrapped up in the emotional turmoil of the lyrical content, but despite the often dark subject matter, the record never succumbs to the potential to overwhelm the listener, because Stevens preserves a delicate balance through his carefully constructed arrangements and beautiful melodies.
For the most part, the easiest reference points to Carrie & Lowell are to early-Elliott Smith/late-Nick Drake records, a fair comparison because of the shared connection of hushed vocals and acoustic guitars. However, the high points of the album are when Stevens channels other influences. One can hear shades of The Antlers in the album’s finale “Blue Bucket of Gold” and especially in “Fourth of July”, with its soundscapes providing an elegiac ambiance and its simple keyboard chords delivered in a brisk eighth-note rhythm; the shift in musical style also complements the shift in the narrative, as “Fourth of July” details the events of his mother’s death in painstaking detail. The song builds to an agonizing climax, with the dramatic haunting line “we’re all gonna die” lingering in the air as the music drops out.
“The Only Thing” follows, switching back to the soft treble tones of a finger-picked guitar but maintaining the same devastating narrative; if it was backed by heavily distorted lead guitar, it would be a perfect siren song for a Victory Records band, especially with lyrics like “Should I tear my eyes out now before I see too much? Should I tear my arms out now? I want to feel your touch.” The difference is that Stevens delivers these nakedly personal lines with such a deft touch that it only invokes empathy in the listener, and avoids the possibility of falling into self-caricature. This adroitness extends to other brilliant sonic details, such as the end of “John My Beloved”–as Stevens ends the song with the line “in a manner of speaking, I’m dead”, the tape keeps rolling for a few moments, and one can hear a short breath before the tape is cut, creating an extremely powerful moment.
While Stevens abandoned the “Fifty States” project, the subtitle for Carrie & Lowell could easily be “Oregon”, as references to state landmarks and historical events are peppered throughout the album. Hearing mentions of The Dalles, Spencer’s Butte, and the Tillamook burn, among others, helps ground the album to a specific time and place, as well as provide a personal touch to the universal emotions explored throughout the record (and as an Oregonian, it definitely keeps my attention as a listener as I keep trying to spot the different references with each listen). The album is an often harrowing listen, but Carrie & Lowell is never a slog; with the aid of his gorgeous and elegant musical arrangements, Stevens is able to probe difficult questions about love and relationships without leaving the listener in a depressed and miserable state. It may be Sufjan’s best work to date, and possibly the most beautiful album you will hear this year.