tue 22/08/2017

CD: Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

CD: Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

Experimental songwriter returns to his roots on gut-wrenching new album

Sufjan Stevens' new album 'demands close listening and a good pair of headphones'

Let’s get one thing straight: Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is not a folk album. Folk, in this case, is a word used as a comfort blanket in an attempt to summarise the Michigan songwriter’s return to simple, acoustic music after the apocalyptic electronica of 2010’s The Age of Adz or the epic, high-concept Illinois. But folk music is a communal thing, predicated on culture and oral tradition. Carrie & Lowell – a sparse, beautiful and gut-wrenching album inspired by the writer’s difficult childhood and coming to terms with the death of his mother – is none of these things.

For an album so personal and yet so oblique, it makes sense that the songs come in waves: fragments of poetry breaking through ambient waves like radio static, half-whispered vocal delivery and the lightest of touches on pedal steel and acoustic guitar. That the album is Stevens’ reckoning with his mother’s death from stomach cancer in 2012 is no secret – she’s the titular Carrie, while Lowell is Stevens’ stepfather – but the lyrics are less straightforwardly autobiographical than vignettes as tattered as the portrait of the pair that forms the album’s cover art. They’re part stream of consciousness, part diary entries written for nobody else’s eyes and so presented without need for context or elaboration: “when I was three, maybe four, she left us at that video store”; “lemon yoghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt, I dropped the ashtray on the floor, I just wanted to be near you”.

Still incredibly affecting even at their most abstract, these songs combine the cries of the small boy abandoned by his alcoholic, schizophrenic mother and the regrets of the man who will never get to know her better. Where the lyrics become more direct – with a death on the quietly devastating “Fourth of July”, or self-destruction and sorrow on gorgeous album stand-out “The Only Thing” – the album is completely immersive. But even when meaning is buried in abstraction and metaphor this is an album that demands close listening and a good pair of headphones.

Overleaf: hear "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross"


The lyrics are part stream of consciousness, part diary entries, presented without need for context or elaboration

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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