Death is a funny thing: As human beings, it is our most common experience, yet the experience is only shared through the death of others.
“We are all going to die,” Sufjan Stevens sings on the track “Fourth of July” on his seventh studio album Carrie & Lowell.
We are going to bury loved ones or scatter their ashes. We are going to have to say goodbye, or come to terms with being unable to. We are going to convince ourselves it didn’t happen and feel pain like we have never felt before. We are going to say ‘no’ to reality and hide from understanding.
“We all know how this will end,” he sings on the album’s first track “Death with Dignity.”
Carrie & Lowell captures this hum of mortality. The album is a truthfully solemn representation of life and death. An immaculately drawn portrait of pain, it catalogs the sounds of hopelessness and denial, understanding and emotional recovery.
Stevens’ once electronic sounds, overpowering choral and horn sections and orchestral interludes fall seamlessly away for stripped down acoustics and quiet guitar melodies. The cacophonous breaks in Age of Adz disappear for careful strumming and sincere vocals.
Possibly, this is Stevens’ most approachable album. No longer is he hiding behind fantastic lyrical plot lines and equally fantastical music. No more UFO’s, giant stinger bees and attempts at making serial killers relatable. Carrie & Lowell is about mom and stepdad – a story about abandonment, illness and mending relationships.
This is not to say that Stevens was once impersonal with his music. He has long sung from the heart, tying life experiences and emotions into these larger-than-life thematic albums. In a way, his now-forsaken project to make an album for every state in the U.S. is emblematic of his previous necessity to mask intimate stories. On occasion the album hints at Stevens’ trademark angelic melodies, but more so in addressing the role religion undoubtedly played in his path toward recovery–he is a devout Christian.
Carrie & Lowell doesn’t hold secrets. Stevens’ mother, Carrie, died in 2012 from stomach cancer. Lowell is the name of her second husband, Stevens’ stepdad. Carrie had left her children early in Stevens’ life, battling schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and suffering from drug and substance abuse.
“When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store,” Stevens sings on “Should Have Known Better.”
This album is about Stevens’ journey toward understanding her death’s role in life. It starts at the end of that emotional pilgrimage, with forgiveness.
“I forgive you mother/ I can hear you/and I long to be near you/but every road leads to an end,” he sings in “Death with Dignity.”
Carrie & Lowell has its ups and downs. It juxtaposes the most painful feelings with lighter, more hopeful sounds. Other times it pulls at heartstrings.
In all it is a reminder that no matter the loss, we can find peace that our loved ones are resting in a quiet place, that life moves forward, that people are born, laughter is laughed, joy is had and work is done. We can hold on to the good things and let go of the bad, heal wounds and remember the love.
We will do it to the sounds of Carrie & Lowell.