By Eleni P. Austin
“Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” That’s Sufjan Stevens channeling his grief on “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross,” the first single from his achingly beautiful new album, Carrie & Lowell.
Sufjan Stevens never had an easy childhood. His parents, Rasjid and Carrie, married and quickly had four children. Devotees of the inter-faith religion, Subud, they gave their children Arabic/Persian names like Djamilah, Djohariah, Marzuki and Sufjan.
His mother Carrie, abandoned the family when he was just a year old. (They later discovered she suffered from depression and schizophrenia). Their father remarried, raising the children in Michigan. But their early years remained chaotic. Sufjan has characterized the relationship between his parents and siblings as more like a “landlord/tenant” arrangement.
When Sufjan, (pronounced “Sooof-yon”) was five, his Mother married Lowell Brams. For the next few years the children spent their summers with Carrie and Lowell in Oregon. They were happy times and Lowell exposed them to a variety of music. Sadly, their marriage only lasted a few years. But Lowell always remained in contact with his step-kids.
By his teens, Sufjan had become a proficient multi-instrumentalist. After college, he played in a couple of bands before striking out on his own. He recorded his debut, A Sun Came, on a four-track recorder and released it in 2000, through Asthmatic Kitty Records, a label he co-founded with his step-father, Lowell, and other musicians.
A prolific and prodigious talent, Sufjan quickly recorded his sophomore effort, Enjoy Your Rabbit, in 2001. An experimental Electronica album, it was inspired by the animals in the Chinese zodiac.
2003 saw the release of his third LP, Michigan. It offered an homage to his home state that was equal parts meticulous and sprawling. It was also the first of what Sufjan described as “The 50 State Project.”
Seven Swans, appeared in 2004. It was primarily lo-fi Folk and acoustic. The lyrics explored Christian and spiritual themes. Although he is devoutly religious, Sufjan has referred to Contemporary Christian Music as “didactic crap.”
The following year saw the arrival of Sufjan’s masterpiece, Illinois, also known as Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise. The second in his “50 State Project,” it was an exploration of the culture, art and geography of Illinois.
The record was a perfect execution of form and function. It featured sharp storytelling, complex orchestrations and elaborate vocal parts, offering up compelling portraits of everyone from Abraham Lincoln to serial killer John Wayne Gacy. A triumph from start to finish, Illinois was a critical and commercial success.
After completing such a daunting effort, and touring behind it, Sufjan laid low for a few years. Avalanche, an album of Illinois outtakes and Songs For Christmas, a five CD box set of Christmas music came out in 2006. In late 2009, he admitted his 50 states project was a bit of a gimmick, and he might never complete it.
It was five long years before he released another full-length album of original material. 2010’s The Age Of Adz was heavily inspired by the artwork of schizophrenic artist, Royal Robertson. The instrumentation was primarily electronic. Anyone expecting “Illinois 2 Electric Boogaloo” was woefully disappointed.
In 2012, Sufjan’s mother, Carrie was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The Stevens siblings rallied round, offering comfort and unconditional love and support. She passed away in December, and while Sufjan internalized the grief for quite a while, he realized he couldn’t contain it. The result is his heart-rending tribute, Carrie & Lowell.
The opening track, “Death With Dignity” offers an ethereal melody anchored by sun-dappled acoustic guitar, Sufjan’s beatific vocals and haunted piano chords. His helplessness is palpable. “I forgive you mother, I can hear you and I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end, your apparition passes through me in the willows…you’ll never see us again.” The song ends with a wordless chanting coda that kind of breaks your heart.
The specter of death hangs over this album, but three songs, “Should Have Known Better,” “Eugene” and “Carrie & Lowell” revisit happier times and come to terms with dashed expectations. Delicate acoustic arpeggios and pulsating synths provide ballast to Sufjan’s wistful recollections on “Should…,”as he parses the past. “When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store.”
Prickly guitar propels the Simon & Garfunkel-esque melody of “Eugene.” The lyrics juxtapose cheerful childhood memories: “The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name/Like a father he led community water on my head and he called me ‘Subaru;’” with an almost unbearable yearning for maternal closeness, “I just want to be near you.”
On the title track, a gossamer lattice of guitar and banjo thread through the melody as Sufjan’s layered harmonies dart between sweet echoes of childhood; “Carrie and Lowell, such a long time ago..” and witnessing signs of her schizophrenia: “Carrie come home (Thorazine’s friend).”
His heart wrenching loss bleeds through the music on “Fourth Of July,” “The Only Thing” and “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross.” Pulsing piano keys provide a metronome rhythm on “Fourth Of July.” Suffused in sadness, the lyrics recount the moment of farewell. “The hospital asked should the body be cast, before I say goodbye, my star in the sky/Such a funny thought to wrap you in cloth, do you find it alright, my dragonfly?”
Filigreed fret-work can’t camouflage the depression that cloaks “The Only Thing.” Sufjan questions it all, “Should I tear my eyes out now, everything I see returns to you somehow/Should I tear my heart out now, everything I feel returns to you somehow, I want to save you from your sorrow.”
“No Shade…” is the nadir of hurt and anguish. Over delicate finger-picking and somber piano tones, psychic pain is duly medicated; “get drunk to get laid.” Even suicide is contemplated… “I’ll drive that stake on the center of my heart/Lonely vampire inhaling it’s fire.”
Both “Drawn To Blood” and “John My Beloved” offer spiritual comfort. On the former urgently strummed guitar and swoony synths underscore Sufjan’s pointed questions for God. “For My prayer has only been love, what did I do to deserve this…How? God of Elijah.”
There is a light at the end of the tunnel on the latter; click-track percussion and plinking piano notes pulse in Waltz-time, kind of like a heartbeat. Sufjan searches his soul and surrenders to his higher power. “Jesus I need you, be near me come shield me from fossils that fall on my head/There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking, I’m dead.”
The only track that lightens the mood offers the album’s most infectious melody. Jangly guitar licks shimmer and dance on “All Of Me Wants All Of You.” A carnal respite in a sea of sadness, Sufjan employs these neat turns of phrase; “You checked your text while I masturbated…I feel so used/Now all of me thinks less of you.” The repetition of this last phrase echoes and swirls like a roundelay.
The album closes with “Blue Bucket Of Gold.” Warm piano chords wash over the melody and choir boy harmonies that search “for things to extol. “ The final, simple sing-song notes of “whoo-oo-oo-oo” are on the same astral plane as Brian Wilson’s sonic ‘60s masterpiece, “Surf’s Up.” An encouraging end to a devastatingly beautiful record.
This album isn’t an easy record, but it’s rich and rewarding, brave and cathartic. It may leave the listener feeling melancholy and blue.
Carrie & Lowell perfectly illustrates the French phrase, La Donleur Exquise. It literally means the exquisite pain of wanting someone you can never have. Usually it refers to romantic love, but basically, it is a love that is not, and cannot be reciprocated. Somehow Sufjan Stevens has found a way to articulate that, make peace with it and set it to music.