“Carrie & Lowell” – Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens

“Carrie & Lowell”

Asthmatic Kitty

There are few albums that have moved me as deeply as this recent release by Sufjan Stevens. It is a subtle masterpiece, a work of art, and a true reflection of the real struggles that we all deal with in our lives – love, loss, confusion, and trying to find one’s direction in the world.

The first few times I listened, it was too quiet and slow for me to jump into and really enjoy. I kept hearing stellar reviews about it from other musicians who I respect, so I found some quiet time to sit and listen. It really paid off. It is a beautiful, sparse album decorated with quiet acoustic guitar and banjo, with Sufjan’s airy voice dancing lightly over the top.

As light as the music is, the words carry some heavy weight. This is part of why the album is such a masterpiece. “Carrie & Lowell” is largely about the recent loss of his somewhat estranged mother. She was sparsely present in his life to begin with before dying of cancer in 2012, and the album is dotted with memories of her, both the pain and the love he feels.

The way he articulates his feelings is so poignant and so real. That’s one of the things I really appreciate in music – when an artist can produce not just a great sounding song but actually convey a sense of reality to you through the music. There’s nothing fake, phony, or pretentious about this work. He seems to bare his soul naked to the world as he examines the pain in his life.

The whole album works together as a cohesive whole, but a few songs stand out to me as particularly strong. “Drawn to the Blood” has a dirge-like element to it with shards of light interspersed. Biblical references are woven throughout the album: “How? God of Elijah, How? As fire to the sun, tell me what I have done. How? Heart of a dragon, How? For my prayer has always been love; What did I do to deserve this?”. 

Another brilliant song is “Fourth of July”. He tenderly and sadly sings about his lost mother, remembering her as “my firefly” and “my little hawk”, and reflecting on how we’re all bound to die eventually. Rather than coming off as morbid, the gentle singing and playing just comes off as real tender feelings, and almost a numbness in the midst of puzzling thoughts and feelings.

The timing of this review is apropos, as many of us in the New England music community are feeling the loss of New Haven native Todd “Demse” Zullo, drummer and producer of The Alchemystics, a popular regional reggae band. The sudden loss of Demse and his best friend Budzy in a tragic car accident has left shock waves throughout the community, and somehow hearing this album and diving into those feelings has helped me cope with the atmosphere of loss that we’re all coming through right now.

At this point, it stands at the top of my list for best album of the year. It’s not party music, it’s not beach music, but it is a real work of art. I recommend listening as I did – somewhere quiet and calm, listen deeply, and float down the gentle river of music Sufjan Stevens provides for you. After “Carrie & Lowell”, appreciate your own life and the lives of the ones you love, for we all have to say goodbye sometime.

Tom Matthew, Two Ton Music