Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
Sufjan Stevens’ career seemed to reach its apex with the critically acclaimed Illinois (2005), a 74-minute concept album based on the American state from which it gets its name. Featuring orchestral arrangements, an array of instrumentation, and lengthy, comical song titles, the overblown but expertly crafted album was included on several best of the decade lists.
Chicago – Illinois
2010’s The Age of Adz received a mixed response from critics, and it seemed that the thirty-nine-year-old Michigan songwriter would never top Illinois. However, by returning to his folk roots and creating a highly impassioned, lyrically centered album, he may have done just that. Named after his deceased mother and stepfather, on Carrie and Lowell Stevens takes a step back from his favoured themes (in particular his fascination with American History), to contemplate issues of loss and redemption. His mother, Carrie, battled mental illness and substance abuse, and died of cancer in 2012, and Stevens’ memories of childhood visits to Oregon to see her and his stepfather form the theme of many of the songs.
On “Fourth of July”, the album’s most darkly affecting moment, he sings of a dialogue between him and his mother (“Well you do enough talk, my little hawk, why do you cry”), concluding on the repetition of the phrase “we’re all gonna die” as the song fades.
Stevens examines his Christian beliefs on penultimate track (and the album’s first single), “No Shade in the Shadow of Cross”, in which he struggles to find solace in his faith in the aftermath of the troubles he and his family have experienced.
Such weighty themes, and his return to his folk rock origins, may cause some to fear that the actual music is an afterthought, but Stevens’ sense of melody remains untainted: electric guitar on “The Only Thing” and keyboards on “Should Have Known Better” and “All of Me Wants All of You”, subtly complement the album’s emotional crescendos. Nor is Carrie and Lowell a downer; rather than being depressing for its own sake, it is a candid reflection of his life, and a sense of deep, genuine love for his mother and stepfather is evident from the first track to the last.