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Carrie & Lowell: Album review

April 1, 2015 | Charlene Lee | Comments (0)

March 31st marked the release of the long-awaited Sufjan Stevens album, Carrie & Lowell. This is his seventh studio album, his previous being released five years ago. In a word (or a few), this album is near perfect, maybe even his best? This may seem like a ludicrous statement, given the success of past albums Illinoise and Seven Swans. These releases yielded gems such as "Casimir Pulaski Day", "Chicago" and "To Be Alone With You".


Carrie & Lowell, so-called after his mother and stepfather, sees a return to Stevens' more sparse style with the use of modest instrumentation. With gentle acoustic guitar, intermittent piano, paltry backing vocals, and virtually no percussion, the minimal accompaniment forges and nurtures the honesty and intimacy of this album.

Carrie & Lowell chronicles Stevens' broken relationship with his mother who passed away in 2012 of stomach cancer, but abandoned him and his family earlier when he was one year old. Carrie, who suffered from mental health issues, also battled drug addiction, and substance abuse. Stevens enthralls the listener as he describes the hurt and confusion resulting from his relationship with his mother (or lack thereof), as well as the repercussions of her passing.

Carrie & Lowell
Album cover - Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell.  Asthmatic Kitty (2015).

The album draws haunting illustrations, while tenderly exploring depression, grief, regret, and isolation. In "Should Have Known Better", he sings "The bridge to nowhere/ I should've wrote a letter/ Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling". In the end, there's no grand catharsis for listeners; there's nothing from which to be released. Although there's a level of indignation throughout, Stevens isn't angry. Every time, in his most desperate and inescapable moments, he consoles the listener. In impassioned "John My Beloved", Stevens takes one final breath, allowing the listener to breathe with him.

Stevens candidly sings about feelings of desertion, resentment, and love. This sincerity is apparent throughout his musical career, but is especially evident in this album. Narrative aside, Carrie & Lowell is a solid work. The minimal electric elements delicately blend within the composition, while notably contributing to the album's intricacies.

Sufjan Stevens in Milwaukee
Sufjan Stevens. Photo courtesy of Joe Lencioni on a CC license

Place a hold on Carrie & Lowell, and in the meantime check out some of Sufjan Stevens' earlier work. If this strikes a chord, check out other similar artists including: Iron & Wine, Great Lake Swimmers, Birdy, Andrew Bird, and Local Natives

Sufjan Stevens is playing a sold out show at Massey Hall on April 29, 2015.


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