CARRIE & LOWELL by Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty records, 2015)
It may be a bit early to name an album of the year but Sufjan Stevens’ elegiac seventh album will certainly take some beating.
It is a painfully sad yet breathtaking beautiful record written for and about his late mother, Carrie, who died of stomach cancer in 2012.
In the words of the opening song, Death With Dignity, “I don’t know where to begin”, but ,suffice to say, I agree with Dave Eggers’s assessment of it as “an emotionally devastating masterpiece”.
Carrie’s death brought a sense of absence even though she was not a constant in her son’s life. She suffered from depression, schizophrenia, had bipolar disorder and was an alcoholic. On top of this, she also did drugs and had other substance abuse problems. It is not surprising that she was a difficult woman to get close to. Yet while the mother-son relationship was fraught and messy, these are songs of forgiveness not bitterness
In 1976, when Sufjan was one year old and his three siblings were all under 10, Carrie left the family, seemingly for good. He says: “She felt that she wasn’t equipped to raise us, so she gave us to our father”.
Three years later, Carrie re-married to Lowell (Brams). Though not a blood relation, Lowell has remained a constant source of support to his stepson’s career not least by running the Asthmatic Kitty record label from Wyoming.
Sufjan’s strongest memories of his mother come from three summers spent in Eugene, Oregon; the town in which Lowell worked in a bookstore. In these times he remembers her as loving, creative and funny.
The estrangement is the subject of ‘I Should Have Known Better, where the past is viewed as “a bridge to nowhere”. There are hints of regret but equally there’s a recognition that a meaningful reconciliation was practically impossible: “I should have wrote a letter, explaining what I feel – that empty feeling”
If you are not tearful before, you will be by track 6 : Fourth of July. This tugs firmly on the heartstrings because it combines a twin perspective of childlike wonder and adult realism. At her death-bed, Carrie is referred to by a series of cutesy names like “firefly”,”little dove” and “little loon” but the big lesson that comes from her passing is the truth we all know but habitually shy away from facing directly: “We’re all going to die”.
Although the eleven songs all strike a similar melancholy note, there is never a sense of exaggerated morbidity or any suggestion that our sympathies are being milked. These are songs about the pain and suffering, but these are presented as universal feelings since all of us know how the story will end.
Above all, Sufjan manages to be both poetic yet direct. “With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe”, he says, “This is not my art project; this is my life. I’m being explicit about really horrifying experiences”.
It is a eulogy for a woman who was a ghostly figure even while she was alive. The rawness of the emotions may be off-putting to some listeners but, like all the best music or poetry where loss and bereavement are central themes, the words address the miracle of life as much as the aching void of death.
The urgent message you should take away from the album is contained in the line from Fourth of July: “Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light”.