“Should I tear my eyes out now?” Sufjan Stevens wonders, his voice high and taut with pain, on “The Only Thing”, the seventh track of his seventh album, Carrie & Lowell. “Everything I see returns to you somehow.”
That’s the nature of grief: relentless, all-consuming, and brutal. It’s a shadow that follows you around and darkens every joy. Such is its presence on Carrie & Lowell. It’s not heartbreak that occupies the songwriter — or not the romantic kind, anyway. “The Only Thing”, like most of the tracks on Carrie & Lowell, takes its inspiration from the death of Stevens’ mother, who succumbed to stomach cancer in 2012. Her name gives the album its title (Lowell is for Stevens’ stepfather). Her loss pervades every banjo-plucked crevice.
As is befitting an album about grief, Carrie & Lowell sounds lonely and sparse. Recorded in Stevens’ home studio, it’s the most pared-down work he’s done since 2004. Gone are the great choral climaxes of Illinois and the synthesized overload of The Age of Adz. Instead, songs like the gorgeous “Death With Dignity” and wistful “Eugene” are built around muted acoustic guitar and understated banjo patterns. Stevens has always sung in hushed tones, but here that voice recedes into a mournful whisper. The effect can be as dulling as it is stirring. Carrie & Lowell is a delicately moving work of album-as-therapy, but one that only hints at a catharsis that never quite arrives.
It’s not that Sufjan Stevens has ever shied away from lofty, open-hearted themes. With 2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Illinois, he managed album-length tributes to entire U.S. states, while the intervening Seven Swans was a sort of modern biblical song cycle. ButCarrie & Lowell is by far the inward-facing release in the songwriter’s catalog. These songs don’t swell or burst into spirited singalongs. They are more intimate than that, more desolate. It’s not grief in the grand, conceptual abstract that occupies Stevens, but rather his own grief, with its own references and vivid specifics.
There are few stabs at universality. On “Eugene”, Stevens sings of childhood memories — an ashtray being dropped, a swim instructor who couldn’t pronounce “Sufjan” and so called him “Subaru” — and then delivers an uncharacteristically grim final verse. “What’s left is only bittersweet / For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me,” he frets quietly over pitter-patter arpeggios. “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?”
The unspecified “they” he yearns to reach may well be the dead. On Carrie’s most moving material, Stevens addresses his mother directly, in the second-person tense. “Fourth of July”, with its distant, murmured atmospherics, is a highlight; it is also uncomfortable in its stark intimacy. Stevens calls Carrie nicknames — “my firefly”, “my dragonfly” — and wonders about those instants following her death, negotiating the strange moment when a person becomes a lifeless body: “Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth / Do you find it alright?” Alternating verses seem to take the perspective of Carrie, whose words range from comforting (“Why do you cry? / Make the most of your life”) to morbid concession (“We’re all gonna die” — that’s the refrain from the guy who once built an entire interlude around a “Whoo-Hoo!”). The despondent “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” picks up some time later, channeling Stevens’ struggle to move on in the form of Christian imagery. Considering the song barely rises above a sluggish whisper, its impact is largely muted. By contrast, the aforementioned “The Only Thing” is an affectingly mournful centerpiece.
Musically, “Fourth of July” and the stutter-drip keyboard of “John My Beloved” are exceptions. Most of Carrie & Lowell revolves around the acoustic instrumentation that’s been Stevens’ trademark since his debut. You’ve heard it before: the guitars are plucked lightly and rarely strummed; the banjos are removed of any hint of twang.
The trouble isn’t that Stevens hasn’t mastered this brand of wispy folk-pop — it’s that he has, on album after album, leaving little that’s new to explore. While the recent trajectory through Age of Adz found the singer pushing his sound to its outermost limits, Carrie & Lowell is an odd throwback. Its songs are stark, but production-wise they are not minimalistic or especially raw. Stevens can’t resist double-tracking nearly every vocal part — in unison with himself — and recording breathy backing vocals as well. The title track and “All of Me Wants All of You” could well be Illinois outtakes if they weren’t so unbearably hushed (the latter burns out with a quietly rendered horn chorus). The album’s lengthiest cut, “Should Have Known Better”, even musters the energy for a multilayered choral build-up near its end. Carrie & Lowell, by result, occupies an awkward grey space between the orchestrated majesty of Illinois and Michigan and the Nick Drake-y immediacy it hints at. It’s quiet, but not ascetic. There’s pain, but not too much catharsis.
Carrie & Lowell is tough to nail down, but it’s also tough to listen to. Between the bedroom-grief timbres and achingly personal lines like “You checked your texts while I masturbated,” it almost feels too private for mass release. On “The Only Thing”, Stevens asks: “How do I live with your ghost?” That’s not an easy answer. But let’s hope Carrie & Lowell gets him part of the way there.