Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell (2015)

Asthmatic Kitty

Sufjan Stevens has always been one of the most eclectic yet profound storytellers of the past decade to me. Illinois is just one example of this. As with the rest of his work, he lays everything on the line here on Carrie & Lowell, named after his late mother and stepfather, respectively. While he's always braved it in terms of musical style, experimenting with either electronica or hip-hop upbeats, he dials things back here and channels his roots. He resets to an acoustic, folky style that will undoubtedly shift your mind to the likes of Paul Simon or more notably, Elliott Smith. The end result? Another cerebral and emotionally compelling trip. It's haunting, moody and contemplative. Just like True Art should be.

The record's full of ballad-driven, intimate songs. It's quiet, personal and clearly distinguishes itself as a eulogy for his mother but also as a letter to his present self. Stevens sifts through decades of sad memories ranging from his mom walking out on his family to her reentry into his life to an overall reflection on her death. "Death With Dignity" and "Should Have Known Better" epitomize the guitar-picking, folky style throughout the album. The template's all about melodic, gentle whispers to the ghosts of his past as he writes to fix the present and also, mend old bonds. However, it isn't lost on the listener how depressed, bitter and in denial he is at times. Carrie & Lowell is an open book to say the least. He sings with a distanced vibe and seems cold at times through minimal effort expunged on the mic. But as he talks about the grief he's experiencing, the finger-picking is too beautiful and breezy to ignore. Which kind of makes it difficult to ingest how dire he gets when Stevens talks about forgiving himself and his mother for transgressions past.

There's a lot of self-inflected sadness in the record, conflated by his broken relationships with families, friends and lovers as he hints he's a fan of self-destruction, albeit against his will. The messages are brought across through a simple instrumental approach harmonized by subtle rhythms. These open up the way for morbid yet intense poetry. Stevens has always had a diary of tragedies and here, it's no different as he doesn't refrain from doing what he does best. That's being honest brutally. "Fourth of July" is one of these heavy sentimental missives that mixes ethereal tempos and dreary tones. I guess he wanted a quiet canvas to exorcise his demons. I did expect the record to grow a bit louder as it progressed. The variety is definitely lacking as a lot of the songs carry the same essence. This manages to lose you at times. If you've always invested in this art, this album's a treat though. It reminds me of my infatuation with Pianos Becomes The Teeth's Kyle Durfey who spent years in the post-hardcore/screamo genre writing about coping (or lack thereof) with a parent's death. This, lyrically, follows the same pattern through acoustic song structures that can best be described as thoroughly moving. While some tracks do fall into the background, the impact still remains. No matter how cold, lifeless and silently frustrated Stevens gets. The tension doesn't drift as he questions mortality, suicide, the maker and existentialism.

Piano keys subtly glitter a lot of the tracks to add another layer to the explicit quandary he has with life but in doing so, it extends his aura of isolation. As "Blue Bucket of Gold" rounds things up, you can't help but appreciate the mesmerizing and shimmering nature of the musical constructs at hand, which again are as bare-boned and skeletal as they come. Inevitably, they all paint a picture in your mind of the characters involved in Carrie & Lowell - from both parents to the lost child that can't understand or at least, is trying to, in a cruel and unforgiving world. This album is one that could well bring you to tears if you've lost someone close to you recently.