Thursday, April 2, 2015

SUFJAN STEVENS- 'CARRIE AND LOWELL' (ALBUM REVIEW)

By: Connor Glowacki

Photo courtesy of Stereogum.com
    Sufjan Stevens has been regarded as one of the best singer-songwriters of the last 15 years. After starting out as an unknown folk musician, Stevens started receiving recognition for his music in the mid 2000s.
     With 2003's 'Michigan', 2004's 'Seven Swans' and 2005's 'Illinois', Stevens demonstrated the ability to cultivate records about entire American states and yet make them feel so intimate with his stripped back instrumental arrangements and hushed vocals.
     2010's 'Age Of Adz' was a departure from Stevens' folk roots and instead embraced electronic music with hip hop styled beats. 'Age Of Adz' was an album that tackled topics such as emotions, morality, anxiety, and sickness. These topics differed from the geographically based songs off of his previous records.
     Late in 2012, Stevens' mother, Carrie, passed away after a long battle with stomach cancer. In an interview with music publication Pitchfork, Stevens detailed how he always felt anger and resentment towards his mother. She had abandoned Stevens and the rest of the family when he was just one year old.
     When he turned five, Carrie would end up marrying a man named Lowell. Their marriage would end up lasting for five years. Despite his feelings towards Carrie, Stevens maintained a strong relationship with Lowell. Today, Lowell actually works on Stevens' independent music label.
Cover Art for 'Carrie and Lowell'.
Photo courtesy of Pitchfork.
     'Carrie and Lowell', titled after his mother and stepfather, was signaled as a return to Stevens' indie folk roots. As noted in the Pitchfork interview by Stevens, the songs would be inspired by the 2012 death of his mother and the family trips they took to Oregon when he was a child.
     Here is a track-by-track breakdown of the new Sufjan Stevens album, 'Carrie And Lowell'.


1.) 'Death With Dignity'

     'Carrie And Lowell' opens up with very delicate fingerpicking from multiple acoustic guitars. 'Death With Dignity' has Stevens trying to convey what he feels to his deceased mother. "I forgive you, mother, I can hear you. And I long to be near you. But every road leads to an end."
     Due to Carrie abandoning the family when he was just an infant, Stevens has bottled up feelings of disappointment and mistrust towards his mother. And yet he wishes to be near her again after her death.
     The song is very intimate and personal. When Stevens sings, it's almost as if he is whispering. The hushed vocals sound almost hazy and contain brief hints of falsetto at the end of each stanza. It feels as if he is singing so softly just to prevent himself from completely breaking down.
     'Death With Dignity' travels to a place full of ambiance in the outro as piano chords engulf the acoustic guitars to create a sound that would sound right in place on previous albums, like 'Seven Swans' and 'Michigan'.

2.) 'Should Have Known Better'

     This was the second single released before 'Carrie And Lowell' was released and it's easy to understand why this song was picked as a preview for the album. 'Should Have Known Better' sounds slightly more upbeat and the intricate melodies end up engraved in your mind.
Cover Art for the single
'Should Have Known Better'.
Photo courtesy of Soundcloud
     Lyrically, it talks about the fragile emotional state that Stevens is currently in due to the lack of a positive relationship with his mother. He feels as if he has to hide those emotions. "My black shroud. Holding down my feelings. A pillar for my enemies." But later in the song, he begins to regret not being there for her when she was becoming sick. "I should have wrote a letter and grieve what I happen to grieve".
     'Should Have Known Better' features more acoustic guitars and calm vocals from Stevens. However, the song begins to build after the second chorus where the combination of guitars, pianos, a tambourine and synthesizers create this almost joyous vibe.
     Stevens even begins to incorporate happier memories in his lyrics such as the instance when he talks about his own brother and the happiness that he has with his beautiful daughter. But, that turns out to be one of the few happy moments throughout 'Carrie And Lowell'.

3.) 'All Of Me Wants All Of You'

     Musically, things start feeling very similar by the third song 'All Of Me Wants All Of You'. There are several strummed acoustic guitars and Stevens displays his signature quiet vocals.
     Personally, I would like Stevens to change up his vocal delivery every now and then to liven up the pacing of the songs. But, this has been his signature music style throughout his career, so you kind of have to take it with a grain of salt.
     The song sounds like it could be a love song to a lover or possibly directed towards his mother, who is the primary character on this album.
     "Shall we beat this or celebrate it? You're not the one to talk things through." Does it apply to the cancer that killed Stevens' mother or to a failing relationship? There's no clear answer, which allows the listener to provide their own interpretation as to what 'All Of Me Wants All Of You' really means and who it's directed towards.

4.) 'Drawn To The Blood'

     The way the instrumentation is presented slightly changes in 'Drawn To The Blood'. The acoustic guitars are being plucked and you can hear a soft wind echoing in the background. As in many of his past works, Stevens utilizes lots of biblical and spiritual allusions in 'Drawn To The Blood'.
     Some examples include, "The strength of his arm, my lover caught me off guard" and "With blood on my sleeve Delilah, avenge my grief. How? God of Elijah."
     The song ends with the lines, "For my prayer has always been love. What did I do to deserve this now?" This quote could resemble the issue that many people go through when a tragedy occurs in their lives. That issue is questioning faith.
     Overall, it's a decent song. But the build up occurs too late for me to really be emotionally invested.

5.) 'Eugene'

     The song's title very likely stands for the city of Eugene, Oregon, where Stevens sings about his experiences in the town and at Emerald Park. He notes that trips to these areas in Oregon were some of the happiest moments in his life.
     His mother, Carrie, actually reappeared in her children's lives for these trips and the trips allowed Stevens to bond with his stepfather Lowell. "The man who taught me how to swim, he couldn't quite say my first name."
Emerald Park
Photo courtesy of
theeugeneguide.com
     However, 'Eugene's lyrical nature turns darker as there are allusions to questioning one's faith, alcohol use and, for Stevens, questioning the point of making music.  "What's left is only bittersweet. For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me. Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away. What's the point of singing songs if they'll never even hear you".
     Stevens finds solace in these childhood memories, but he sounds depressed and lost following his mother's death. Even though he hated his mother while she was alive, he misses her now that she's gone.




6.) 'Fourth Of July'

     The central point of 'Carrie And Lowell' opens with a soft and mysterious keyboard pattern. The chords sound haunting, and at times almost muted. 'Fourth Of July' is a song that showcases alternating dialogue between Stevens and his mother, all obviously sung by the former.
     It references the immediate death of his mother and features Stevens in a VERY depressed state of mind with lines like, "We're all gonna die" and "Sitting at the bed with the halo at your head". And there's a moment where the lyrics indicate that Carrie is speaking right back to her son, "Did you get enough love, my little dove. Why did you cry?"
     'Fourth Of July' is by far the saddest song on the album. It's so emotional, but it also feels so authentic and so raw that I feel immediately connected and invested. This is a song that every person can relate to.
     This is Sufjan Stevens at the top of his game with his songwriting. Brilliant job.

7.) 'The Only Thing'

     In the interview with Pitchfork, Stevens talked about how he felt connected with his mother after her passing by replicating the abusive behaviors that she did to herself while she was alive. 'The Only Thing' is a song where he admits to contemplating suicide. "The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arms. Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark."
     He credits his continued faith in God for keeping him alive and able to shoulder his burdens. The multiple tracked acoustic guitars add an ominous layer to an already tense subject matter, which creates a subdued, but still captivating song.

8.) 'Carrie And Lowell'

     The title track of the album has a much more upbeat sound and comes as a very pleasant change of pace after the downtempo, serious nature of the last several tracks.
     Like every other song, there are acoustic guitars strumming to keep everything on pace. But I like the soft synthesizers that accompany the guitars in the background and noises of what sounds like the breaking waves of the ocean. The banjo pops up midway through the song and allows a gradual buildup to a climatic end.
     The imagery of the instrumentation has me picturing myself standing at the edge of an ocean and I appreciate it when songs are able to take the listener to an entirely different place and mindset.

9.) 'John My Beloved'

     It's a pretty song that references Jesus' apostle, John the Beloved. Stevens seems to be conveying his relationship with both Jesus and a certain, unknown individual in his life.  There are more spiritual and religious references that weave into the lyrics of how Stevens is still trying to comprehend his mother's death.
     Musically however, this song just drags and stays at the same, slow tempo. It just doesn't go anywhere thematically and sonically.
     I would have to say it's probably my least favorite song on 'Carrie And Lowell'.

10.) 'No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross'

Photo courtesy of genius.com.
     The lead single of 'Carrie And Lowell' is very melodic and contains the breeze of wind and the breaking of the ocean playing in the background.
     'No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross' references Stevens' reckless activity that he found himself in when his mother died. "Like a champion. Get drunk to get laid. I take one more hit when you depart."
     It's an admission that Stevens is destroying himself and highlights the troubled family issues that he has dealt with throughout his life.
     I give him credit for admitting these issues in this kind
of public manner.

11.) 'Blue Bucket Of Gold'

     Stevens sings in this song about trying to convince his remaining family and friends, as well as God, to keep being there for him, like he wishes his mother was there for him. There are interesting background falsetto vocals that mix with the ambient instrumentation. It has me picturing this song as if I'm on the edge of some mountain or being solitude in a forest.
     There is no indication that there is any closure here for Stevens. The listener can tell that he still suffers from pain, regret and disappointment in his mother passing away and the memories that he did have with her.
     A son's relationship with his mother is extremely powerful and the fact that he didn't have that shows how it had a profound impact on his life and his emotional and mental well being.
     It still sounds as if he is trying to find peace.


FINAL VERDICT:

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
     Sufjan Stevens is not the greatest singer in the world. He rarely strayed away from his hushed vocal delivery throughout 'Carrie And Lowell' and kept to the typical folk instrumentation.
     But in the context of what this album is, an individual (Stevens) who is both retrospective and unsure of the future, it all works to his favor.
     This is the type of album that needs to be played in complete silence, with no distractions. It's an album that will play best when on an individual road trip or when traveling somewhere by one's self.
     'Carrie And Lowell' is different from several other of Stevens' folk albums because it's deeply personal and extremely sad. Sadness is the main emotion that will be felt when listening to this album. But that allows the listener to figure out the lyrics and subject matter for what Stevens is trying to say.
     After a five year gap between 'Age Of Adz' and 'Carrie And Lowell', it's good to have Sufjan Stevens back in the mainstream music spotlight where his impeccable songwriting talents deserve all of the recognition that they receive.
     Hopefully, we will get to hear Stevens in a happier state of mind by the time he puts out another record.


RATING: 4 OUT OF 5


TOP THREE FAVORITE TRACKS

1.) 'Fourth Of July'              2.) 'Should Have Known Better'          3.) 'Carrie And Lowell'


Any thoughts on the new record from Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie And Lowell'?

And what should I review next?

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1 comment:

  1. nice review. I'm glad you took the time to review each track individually. My three favorites are fourth of july, death with dignity, and blue bucket of gold but the whole album is brilliant.

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