How do we reflect on the subject of death? Should we douse ourselves in the streams of nostalgia or is death the perfect opportunity to finally reflect on the difficult and all too human relations we have with loved ones? That’s the question that Sufjan Stevens poses to us on his stunning seventh studio album Carrie & Lowell, named after his recently deceased mother and the step-father who helped shape his musical ambitions.
It’s a very appropriate name as Sufjan Stevens uses his musical building blocks, that his early folk inspired albums helped mould, to create a foundation wherein to critique the relationship he had with his somewhat absent mother.
An intimate nature
A gentle plucking of the guitar and a deep breath press play on Death With Dignity, the opening track on Carrie & Lowell, which signals the highly intimate nature on which the album was produced. Sufjan is not afraid to let us hear his short, stuttering breath or the tremble that comes in his voice when relaying anecdotes from his mother’s troubled past.
On tracks such as Drawn To The Blood and Blue Bucket Of Gold, Sufjan wants us to feel as haunted as he does by these anecdotes, with eerie moans and earthly sounds washing over the surrounding soundscape that his guitar and voice dare not to touch. This effect gives a hazy feeling that only the remembrance of past memories can give, with a sense of confusion and misplaced thoughts trickling in the back of Sufjan’s shaking vocals.
Yet the music is delivered with a sense of meditation and stillness that stops the album from becoming outlandish or mystical. After all, we are dealing with a very personal and utterly human subject that we must all at some point have to experience one way or another.
Open for reflection
In that sense, what Carrie & Lowell did for me, personally, was make me reflect on the death of my own mother when I was at a young age. It opened my eyes to the idea that the relationships we hold dear for a loved one who has passed away can ripple through to crucial, defining moments in our own lives, which can then structure how we live, function and treat others.
Sufjan reflects on this ripple effect in The Only Thing, where he describes the temptation of driving his car off the road and ending it all. But looking back over the mistakes his mother makes and the way they have helped structure his own life (especially after her passing), he decides that it’s only a temptation and nothing more. That moment right there sums up the importance that memories and moments have on this album and in our own lives.
It also made me realise that even though I have lost a parent who could have helped build me into the person I could have become, their memories and stories have helped me transform into the person I have became. Just like Sufjan, we lean on the dead’s stories to help us cope with finishing our own tale.
As you can tell, this album has had a profound effect on me. It is one of the most honest and vulnerable accounts of death and continuation that I have experienced in any medium over the past few years. Sufjan Stevens’ use of minimalism and sensitivity, especially in his delicate handling of guitar strings, piano notes and vocal awareness, create an incredible experience of loss, memory and the triumph that reflection can bring in moving forward.
What do you think of Carrie & Lowell? Let us know in the comments below!