Carrie and Lowell is nothing if not a roadmap to heartbreak. Coming after a series of albums that discarded the personal touches of “Michigan” and “Illinoise”, such as “The Age of Adz” and several Christmas albums, Sufjan dives back into one of his greatest strengths: the conversion of people’s lives, including his own, into art.
Carrie & Lowell was created after the death of his mother, Carrie Stevens. Sufjan Stevens’ life story would be difficult to dive into, as there exists a long and incredibly rich tapestry of hardship and abandonment. Lowell and his mother married after Sufjan was born to a different father, but Sufjan truly grew to love his stepfather and would go on to include him quite pointedly in his musical endeavors.
Sufjan and his mother had always had a rocky relationship. His mother was a smoker and an alcoholic, and dealt with deep-rooted mental health issues that led to her taking a boatload of medications. As a child, Sufjan felt separated from his mother, as we can hear on several songs on this record. In “Eugene”, we can here “Remember I pulled at your shirt/I knocked the ashtray on the floor/I just wanted to be near you”.
They were also frequently separated geographically for a long while, as heard in “Romulus” off of “Michigan”. Sufjan in the past has detailed that he or his mother had to drive long ways to see each other when he was a child; one time, when his mother’s car broke down on the way, “we prayed it’d never be fixed or be found”. He was “ashamed” of his mother, even as a young child.
This destructive mix of separation and shame that Sufjan associates with his mother come through the depression he details like arcs of pure black through a murky sky of grey. Nothing makes a a death harder than realizing that you didn’t have a perfect relationship with the person who passed. Sufjan expresses this perfectly. On songs like “Death With Dignity”, “Blue Bucket of Gold”, and “Fourth of July”, Sufjan dives deep into his grief and sadness that came with his mother’s passing. However, on other cuts, such as “The Only Thing”, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, and “John My Beloved”, he details the obstacles he has encountered with the ideas and habits his mother left behind for him.
One of the most notable ideas that comes up across the runtime is that of Sufjan’s struggle with religion. His mother was a devout Christian, and on earlier records, Sufjan generally tended to leave that topic alone. On Illinoise and Michigan, he would include it only when his ethnomusicology of the Midwest truly required it to tell the truth of the stories he details. However, on Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan directly confronts the Christian roots he was born into.
Obviously, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is the a great example of this conflict. The message in this song is mostly reminiscent, but the title and repeated line give the impression that Sufjan had trouble coming to terms with his relationship with God after his mother passed. Also, in “John My Beloved”, he talks about his difficulty understanding religious texts and symbols in the past. Of course, neither of these songs are without personal touches and batches of memories, both of which populate the album plentifully.
In time, Sufjan begins to see himself as a Christian, having since this album’s release put out a plethora of Christian albums. This may be a reflection on the lessons his mother left him with at the moment of her passing, having since realized that her faith was the right one for him.
When I say that “The Only Thing” is my favorite song on the album, I gravely mislead the reader. I discovered this song this year, and it’s already one of my most listened-to songs of all time. This song is a brave and heart-wrenching expression of suicidal thoughts, thoughts of unending duress, and the need to have a person in one’s life that serves as an anchor. I believe this to be one of the most genuinely soul-crushing yet inspiring songs in all of existence.
In the first and second “stanzas”, Sufjan discusses different times that he had thought about ending his life. He talks about driving his car off of a cliff, and cutting his wrists in a hotel bathroom. Yet both times, a celestial experience gives him the “only thing” he needs to keep going. On the first occasion, he sees the stars and constellations above him, and on the second, a message written by the water splashed on the wall. He goes on in the third verse to talk about how he feels he’s “wasted his life playing dumb”, and hopes to experience more of the world in a pantheistic way for the rest of his life.
The end of the song, as well as the chorus, sees him asking, “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”, recognizing that for the rest of his life, he will have to “live with [Carrie’s] ghost”.
Sufjan ends this album off recognizing that his grief won’t end soon; maybe not even ever. As he writes, he’s suffering, and the album doesn’t end on a positive note. But we get the feeling that making this album worked as a release for him, and that possibly he understands that he will “survive this”.