I’ve been holding off talking about Carrie & Lowell for awhile. Not because I wasn’t excited to talk about the album, rather I was so excited I didn’t know how to articulate that excitement into coherent sentences. It’s not easy to give a five-star review. What that means is you listened to an album and found no flaws. The style, writing, production, length? All perfect. That’s quite a claim to make about any album. You don’t want to look foolish. Look at film critic Ben Lyons after he declared the 2007 zombie-vampire movie I Am Legend, “One of the greatest movies ever made.” Did anyone ever hear from that guy again? Also, has anyone even said “Ben Lyons” in the last five years? Is he even still alive?
Carrie and Lowell was a big step in my personal journey of Sufjan Stevens and his music. A few months ago, my girlfriend and I got tickets to see Sufjan. She’s a big fan, I’d never listened to one note. I’d heard about him, his critical acclaim, ambition, his intimacy, the time he was the featured artist on MTV’s “You Hear it First.” On that show Sufjan was described as: “The Polyphonic Spree meets Elliott Smith” and his fun fact was: “As a teenager, he invented his own language.” Interesting, but before I tell you about my listening experience with Sufjan album number seven, let me take you back a few months.
Illinois was my first stab at a Sufjan album, which makes sense. That’s his best album, right? So I’m driving through a snowy mountain pass at night, I pop my freshly burned CD into the player, and how do I feel? Overwhelmed. MTV was spot on with that Polyphonic Spree comparison. The amount of production and orchestration is staggering. Even the song names, “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!” I can’t tell if these are song titles or every single word in those individual songs. Actually, I can, because one of those songs has no words. Listening to Illinois, I couldn’t tell if Sufjan was trolling the listener or just eccentric. He did create his own language after all. I only wish I spoke it.
There’s a lot of unusual decisions on Illinois. Like, why make one track almost six minutes and the next 20 seconds? Why wouldn’t you combine those? Why such long track names? I liked a handful of songs, though I couldn’t tell you the names of most of them. “Chicago” is an obvious fan favorite for its catchiness or the soft if not sinisterly named “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” But I found it difficult to connect with Sufjan’s music when I had absolutely no idea what he was trying to communicate. Just because you have a lot of ideas doesn’t mean they’re all good ones.
Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State was a similar experience, or at least it would have been had I ever finished listening to it. I barely even attempted The Age of Adz, listening to that was like trying to listen to music from the future. All the beeps and bloops, zoozits and kazays, a roller-skate style of lacrosse and croquet! Seven Swans was more my speed. That speed being slow. At this point, I see the Elliott Smith comparison. MTV, you know your stuff. Then we have Carrie & Lowell. Was it going to drown me in a sea of word jumble song titles, confusing concepts, and overbearing flugelhorns? No, it was a different experience entirely.
Intimate. That’s the best way to describe Carrie and Lowell. I can’t remember the last time I listened to an album this personal. To clarify, the “Carrie” in the album’s title is Sufjan’s estranged mom and “Lowell” is Sufjan’s step-dad. It takes a lot of chutzpah to put yourself out there and share the most personal moments of your life. Especially when you’re sharing painful moments. There are no flugelhorns to hide behind here. Some pianos and acoustic guitars are used, but this album is primarily a man and his words.
Carrie & Lowell paints a vivid portrait of Sufjan’s trips to Oregon as a child. Some strokes beautiful and some painful. The one that always gets me the most has to be, “When I was three, three maybe four. She left us at that video store” from the track “Should Have Known Better.” Sufjan’s not hiding behind a metaphor there. When he says he was abandoned I believe him. Another of my favorite lines comes from the number “Eugene. Sufjan says, “Emerald Park, wonders never cease. 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 and now I want to be near you.” There’s something that’s both funny and so sad about that line.
Of course, I could go on picking out my favorite lyrics, which I will. I think the one passage that best describes what the whole album is trying to say is another line from “Eugene.” The line is, “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” Heartbreaking, but also deeply insightful.
The style of Carrie and Lowell is reserved and minimalist. It’s befitting when you consider the subject matter. You wouldn’t want a whole brass section backing up Sufjan when he’s pouring his heart out over his dead mom. You want the backing to be simple, yet elegant. Isn’t that the best way to remember someone after all, with some class? Carrie and Lowell is an album that gets straight to its beating heart. Even the album cover, no bells or whistles there, just an old family photo.
I don’t know if Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan’s best, I’m probably the wrong person to ask, but it’s my favorite. Before this, my Sufjan journey had felt like an uphill battle, but it’s beginning to feel more and more like a light stroll, and I can’t wait to see Sufjan in concert when I finally reach the top.
Favorite Tracks: “Death with Dignity”, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, “Should Have Known Better”.