Originally posted on Music Insight:
Sufjan Stevens’ homecoming to the indie-folk genre is an entirely bittersweet occasion as he pays homage to his mother with the release of his seventh full-length studio album, Carrie & Lowell.
Gone is the heavy use of electronics and amplified orchestrations from previous album, The Age of Adz, replaced by an honest and raw autobiography of Stevens’ childhood and adult life. With Carrie & Lowell, the singer-songwriter focuses on the turbulent relationship he had with his mother, who suffered from a number of illnesses and tragically passed away in 2012.
After the success of 2005 album, Illinois, this 11-track compilation released by the Asthmatic Kitty label is perhaps Stevens’ best body of work to date. Recorded in locations directly linked to his childhood like Klamath Falls in Oregon, the Brooklyn native tried to recreate these memories, going as far as using his iPhone as a recording device on some of the tracks.
Setting the mood for the entire album is opener Death With Dignity, a melancholy tune that speaks of nostalgic farewells and open forgiveness. Stevens’ breathy vocals instill a sense of tranquility while a delicate finger-picked guitar and gentle piano fill the background.
Stevens’ prowess as a multi-instrumentalist doesn’t disappoint on Carrie & Lowell. He can jump from banjo, to piano to the guitar with a self-sufficiency most indie crooners would envy.
Should Have Known Better has a circa Illinois feel, dealing with issues of abandonment. Stevens sings, “When I was three/Three maybe four/She left us at that video store.” Despite the vivid imagery it’s the tune’s multi-tracked melody that solidifies it as one of the best on the album, leaving you with an uplifting acceptance for things that can’t be changed.
Much like his previous work, Stevens puts his Christian beliefs at the core of most songs on this album. John My Beloved, The Only Thing and Drawn to The Blood describe his struggle to comprehend the finality of death and the mysteries that faith holds. Each track is brutally sincere, delivering a hauntingly spiritual experience that causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up.
Deserving of an honorable mention is Fourth of July. If you had to pick one track that makes you feel unequivocally human, this would be it. Recounting the sad day Stevens’ mother died, the tune is stripped right down to its grief-stricken bones. His raw and touching vocals are enhanced by terms of endearment such as “my little hawk” and “my little loon” that we can only guess Stevens’ mother once called him.
Covering decades of untold stories, this record is an entirely sombre affair – one that is difficult to get through without a few tears being shed – and yet manages to fill you with a satisfying hopefulness for the future.
Words by Nizza Munoz