Carrie & Lowell
Even on his grandest albums, Sufjan Stevens sometimes went it alone, recording himself solo, as he played all the parts of his kaleidoscopic compositions. It’s telling, then, that one of Stevens’ smallest-sounding albums—2015’s heartbreaking Carrie & Lowell—was recorded in a half-dozen studios or hotel rooms, with the assistance of multiple engineers, musicians, and even a bona fide producer, Thomas Bartlett. Only two years before Stevens made the record, his largely estranged mother, Carrie, died of stomach cancer. Despite the tense relationship, the grief blindsided Stevens, who in turn rebelled against this face-off with mortality with loose sex, drugs, and booze. He was coping inside a freefall, and he hoped writing and recording about his lack of a life with Carrie would ease the pain. He needed that help. Few albums look at death as unflinchingly as Carrie & Lowell. “We all know how this will end,” Stevens sings by way of introduction during the seemingly cheery opener, “Death With Dignity.” Carrie struggled with mental illness most of her life, and left Stevens when he was one year old, reuniting with him for a brief spell after her marriage to Lowell Brams, while Stevens was still a toddler. Carrie & Lowell is part travelogue of alternately painful and pleasant memories: At one point, Stevens recalls being abandoned by his mother at a video store; later, he remembers learning how to swim alongside Brams, a new but steadying presence in his life. Those were days of strange wonder and worry, vividly recounted here. But these gently gilded songs of ever-gorgeous folk are concerned less with the travails of the past than they are with the urgencies of the present. There is the bleary bar-side reflection of the dirge-like “John My Beloved,” and the unfeeling sex—or lack thereof—during “All of Me Wants All of You.” And at the center of Carrie & Lowell is the breathtaking “The Only Thing,” in which Stevens softly owns the extent of his hardcore recklessness, as he considers driving off a cliff, or cutting his arms; he’s on an express route to wherever his mother has gone. “Do I care if I survive this? Bury the dead where they’re found,” he sings in the final chorus, his voice rising to reach out for connection. Especially at those depths, Carrie & Lowell is an honest encapsulation of someone else’s grief, flashing like a lighthouse for anyone who’s out there, dangerously drifting.