Sufjan Stevens seventh studio album Carrie & Lowell is also his most simple, stripped down album to date. The project bears the name of his birthmother Carrie as well as her second husband Lowell, both of whom had very limited interaction with Stevens in his early years and up until recently when Stevens was able to reconnect with her mother before her death in 2012. The album’s simplicity is also its beauty, featuring minimal pieces mainly consisting of Stevens and his guitar, with flourishes of other instrumentation. While this project lacks the massive scope and ambition of his previous works, such as his albums Michigan and Illinois, Carrie & Lowell is an excellent album in its own right, focusing more on lyrics and its emotional atmosphere more than Stevens’ past work.
The album opens with the beautiful “Death with Dignity”, which features a bright guitar riff and soft spoken vocals from Stevens. The track, along with much of the album, delves into Stevens past, describing memories from Stevens early life and his current reflections on his past. Many of these stories relate back to the narrative of his mother, who abandoned his family when Stevens was quite young, as described in detail on the somber, ethereal “Should Have Known Better”, one of the albums best tracks. It begins with a chilling guitar melody and quiet vocals and then swells into a much more beautiful track as backing choir vocals are added. The track’s atmosphere along with its emotional lyrics make it a very memorable piece on the album.
In many ways, Carrie & Lowell feels very similar to Bon Iver’s 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, as both albums master feelings of isolation and reflection perfectly. However, Stevens’ project captures these emotions in much more intricate and instrumentally layered pieces, such as on the song “Drawn to the Blood”, which begins with just Stevens and his guitar, but then transitions to a beautiful, atmospheric instrumental for the remainder of the track. The album interestingly pairs dark song topics with relaxing and often peaceful sounding instrumentals, which provide an intriguing contrast to each other. The dreamy, ambient “Fourth of July” sounds incredibly beautiful, but gives a detailed account of his mother’s death, described in a poetic fashion. It’s heartbreaking and yet entrancing all at once, as with many songs on the project.
Carrie & Lowell may not be as thematic or conceptual as Stevens’ past work, but still features the beautiful instrumentation and detailed stories that make Stevens such an interesting artist. The album stands out in his catalogue as his most personal and emotional album to date, and its decidedly minimalistic tone serves as a great contrast to his past work. Stevens’ latest is heartbreaking and reassuring all at once, allowing the listener to put themselves in the context of these songs and reflect on their own lives. It’s not very often that music can be so compelling and engulfing, but Carrie & Lowell does an excellent job of stirring up the feelings the listener, all while getting lost in the album’s sparse atmosphere.
Standout Tracks: “Should Have Known Better”, “Fourth of July”, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, “Drawn to the Blood”