Sufjan Stevens releases the beautiful, demure and moving Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens (pitchfork.com)

Sufjan Stevens

Introduction

On March 31st, 2015, Sufjan Stevens released the beautiful, moving and intimate Carrie & Lowell. A tribute to a masterpiece.

Leading up to…

The album is inspired by the passing of Sufjan Stevens’ mother Carrie in December of 2012. On February 16th, 2015, an interview with Stevens was published on music site Pitchfork, in which Stevens talks about the process leading up to Carrie & Lowell.

With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe. It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.

She [Carrie] was evidently a great mother, according to Lowell and my father [Rasjid]. But she suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.

She had stomach cancer, and it was a quick demise. We flew to see her in the ICU before she died. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, but she was aware. It was so terrifying to encounter death and have to reconcile that, and express love, for someone so unfamiliar. Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable. There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you. It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.

Oh man, it’s so hard to describe what was going on. It’s almost like the force, or the matrix, or something: I started to believe that I was genetically, habitually, chemically predisposed to her pattern of destruction. I think a lot of the acting-out was rebellion, or maybe it was a way for me to… ah, this is so fucked up, I should probably go to therapy.

In lieu of her death, I felt a desire to be with her, so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and fucking around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her. But I quickly learned that you don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering, and that, in spite of the dysfunctional nature of your family, you are an individual in full possession of your life. I came to realize that I wasn’t possessed by her, or incarcerated by her mental illness. We blame our parents for a lot of shit, for better and for worse, but it’s symbiotic. Parenthood is a profound sacrifice.

I’m being explicit about really horrifying experiences in my life, but my hope has always been to be responsible as an artist and to avoid indulging in my misery, or to come off as an exhibitionist. I don’t want to make the listener complicit in my vulnerable prose poem of depression, I just want to honor the experience. I’m not the victim here, and I’m not seeking other peoples’ sympathy. I don’t blame my parents, they did the best they could.

The story goes that Stevens was so startled by his own openness and sincerity that he consequently canceled all following interviews. I vividly remember reading this at the time and being convinced I had to buy Carrie & Lowell immediately upon release. So I did.

Sufjan Stevens (pitchfork.com)

Sufjan Stevens

On Sufjan Stevens’ own site (sufjan.com), critic Hilton Als is quoted:

In “Carrie and Lowell,” Sufjan Stevens is a child again or, more specifically, the child character in the family of man drama that often but not always centers on the story of love given, or love forsaken, but isn’t that the same thing to the poet? That the love Stevens sings about having left or given or been born to–thank you, Carrie–is a perceptible wound not only on the singer’s throat, but his sleeve: he wears love’s incomprehensibility, and the deep incomprehensibility of being a son, like a backing vocal on “Carrie and Lowell,” which is also filled with colors, hearts, trees, conclusions, and beginnings, all adding up to the kind of intimacy that caught my eye the morning I sat in the diner waiting for the sun to get stronger as I saw intimacy pass by while going about it’s business, like something sung and felt by Sufjan Stevens on his new beautiful solitary and rich record filled with faith and disbelief and the resurrection of trust and dreams.

Asthmatic Kitty (asthmatickitty.bandcamp.com)

Asthmatic Kitty

On the album, several places in the state of Oregon are mentioned: Stevens spent three summers there with his mother and stepfather (Lowell). They’re not only memories of an important period in his life, they also serve as the only real memories Stevens has of his mother. Carrie and Lowell’s marriage during the early 1980’s lasted for about five years and represent a shining light in the youthful years of Stevens. After the disolution of the marriage Stevens accasionally saw his mother. Lowell kept in touch with the Stevens children and is co-founder of Stevens’ own record label Asthmatic Kitty.

Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (music.sufjan.com)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Carrie & Lowell is the seventh Sufjan Stevens studio album, released on Asthmatic Kitty on March 31st, 2015. Just like Seven Swans, the music on Carrie & Lowell is minimal and functional, and seems to signal a return to Stevens’ indie folk roots.

The songs were recorded in 2014 in Flora in Portland (Oregon), Black Watch in Norman (Oklahoma), April Base in Eau Claire (Wisconsin), Pat Dillet’s studio in midtown Manhattan, New York City (New York), Sufjan Stevens’ office in Dumbo, Brooklyn, New York City (New York). Some songs were recorded on an iPhone (!) in a hotel room in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

The album was produced by Thomas Bartlett, a musician friend who had recently lost his brother to cancer.

Upon release, the album was immediately heralded as the best of that year and by some as the best of Stevens’ entire body of work. Quite a feat, since Stevens had released beautiful and impressive album after beautiful and impressive album throughout his entire career. The album ended on top of many end-of-year lists. In The Netherlands, music magazine Oor named it album of the year.

And, is it worthy of all the praise? Oh yes, beautiful, vulnerable songs, that take the listener on a journey through Stevens’ sorrow, without making the listenere feel like a voyeur of Stevens’ misery. The delivery is in good taste and sincere, resulting in a rarely honest, intimate, sad ánd inspiring record.

The first lines of the album say it all, really:

Spirit of my silence I can hear you
But I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin

Death With Dignity

The contact with his mother was always troublesome and (alomost) always inded in disappointment, desertion and sadness.

When I was three, three maybe four
She left us at that video store

Should Have Known Better

It is all presented in the typical Sufjan Stevens way, with his beautiful quiet whispering voice. In that same song there still is something good when he talks of his brother Marzuki’s daughter.

My brother had a daughter
The beauty that she brings, illumination

Should Have Known Better

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell - Sleeve pictures (pinterest.com)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell – Sleeve pictures

Youthful memories of beautiful summers with Lowell and his mother play a big part on Carrie & Lowell, which made a great impression on a very young Sufjan and serve as e beacon of light.

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

Eugene

Fourth Of July is poignant and looks back at the passing of Carrie. Carrie is given a voice in the song.

“Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles”

Fourth Of July

One of the album’s central themes is part of that specific song: repeating the phrase We’re all gonna die. When written down it all seems very fatalistic and depressing, but the way Stevens sings it makes it comforting and even hopeful.

But Stevens’ own dark sides are honestly portrayed as well. After his mother’s passing he lost himself in drugs and alcohol, which was his ultimate way to connect to his mother.

The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark
No shade in the shadow of the cross

I slept on my back in the shade of the meadowlark
Like a champion, get drowned to get laid
I take one more hit when you depart

The Only Thing

Depair all around, the phrase Fuck me, I’m falling apart sounds incredibly sad and lonely.

Review

Based on the descriptions above you can only come to one conclusion: Carrie & Lowell is one big sad affair. But it really is not, this album comes highly recommended. Even though it’s vulnerable, melancholy and sad, Stevens turns it around in a playful, even optimistic way. Even though the situation is bleaker than bleak, comfort is always near. Love, even for someone who has done nothing but hurt you, conquers the biggest traumas. Hope trumps despair.

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell - Singles (apoplife.nl)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell – Singles

Singles

Three singles were culled from the album, which were all released prior to the album:

  • No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross
    (released on February 16th, 2015)
  • Should Have Known Better
    (released on March 11th, 2015)
  • Carrie & Lowell
    (released on March 17th, 2015)

Songs

All songs written by Sufjan Stevens.

  • Death With Dignity
  • Should Have Known Better
  • All Of Me Wants All Of You
  • Drawn To The Blood
  • Eugene
  • Fourth Of July
  • The Only Thing
  • Carrie & Lowell
  • John My Beloved
  • No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross
  • Blue Bucket Of Gold

Musicians

  • Sufjan Stevens – vocals, guitar
  • Thomas Bartlett – vocals

With help from Sean Carey, Casey Foubert, Ben Lester, Nedelle Torrisi and Laura Veirs (background vocals on Should Have Known Better.

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell Tour (joshuahiggason.net)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell Tour

Carrie & Lowell Live

Following the release of Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens went out on tour. It took him to The Netherlands as well. In the beautiful Carré theater Stevens performed two shows. I was there on September 24th, 2015, one of the most impressive concerts I have ever witnessed.

The tour was supposed to provide Stevens with some much needed balance. “I got so little pleasure out of writing and recording the album that I feel like I’m due some enjoyment.” said Stevens before the tour commenced. The intimacy of the performances on the album were replaced with rich instrumentation in the live-setting, without impacting the songs’ eloquence. Even more, in some cases the message was even more intent. His tour consisted of deeply moving concerts, in which Stevens gave everything he had.

During the first part of the show the entire Carrie & Lowell album was played, supplemented with the instrumental Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou) (off Michigan) and Futile Devices and Vesuvius (both off The Age Of Adz), followed by a selection of older songs.

In 2017 the following announcement appeared:

Asthmatic Kitty Records is pleased to announce Carrie & Lowell Live, an audio and visual document of Sufjan’s November 9, 2015 performance at North Charleston Performing Arts Center in South Carolina. It is available on YouTube and Vimeo and as an audio download (and streaming) on most digital platforms starting April 28, 2017.

Released in March 2015, Carrie & Lowell is perhaps Sufjan’s bleakest album, tracing the songwriter’s struggle with grief and depression following the sudden death of his mother. To promote the album, Sufjan set out on an extensive worldwide tour, playing almost 100 concerts performing almost exclusively songs from the new record.

The show, which was designed by Marc Janowitz, incorporated an expansive lighting display and cathedral-like LED columns featuring home videos shot by Sufjan’s maternal grandfather, Nick Marabeas. Much of this vintage footage highlights family birthdays, graduations, and weddings of Carrie and her siblings from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, lending the performances the emotional arc of a memorial, celebrating Carrie’s life and meditating on her death with a sweeping transcendence that gave testament to Sufjan’s central thesis of mourning: that in spite of death, we must go on living in fullness and joy.

The live show featured many new interpretations, re-workings and expansions of the songs from Carrie & Lowell, itself a spare album. On stage, acoustic guitars, ukuleles, and piano were augmented by drums and percussion, electronics, and a motley of synthesizers to create an expansive sonic environment that moved from intimate to psychedelic without sacrificing the solemn nature of the material.

Carrie & Lowell Live captures Sufjan at his most vulnerable and persuasive, and it features a proficient, multiple-instrumentalist crew of musicians, including Dawn Landes (vocals, guitar, guitalin, piano, synthesizer, vocoder, percussion), Casey Foubert (vocals, guitar, lap steel, bass, piano, ukulele, synthesizer), Steve Moore (vocals, synthesizer, bass synth, trombone, Casiotone, piano) and James McAlister (drums, percussion, electronics, synthesizer, piano). The live show ends with an expansive 12-minute improvisational jam that looks (and feels) like nothing less than a born-again experience.

Carrie & Lowell Live was shot and produced by We Are Films, edited by Keith Bradshaw and Deborah Johnson, mixed by Casey Foubert, and mastered by TW Walsh.

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell Live (amazon.es)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell Live

On April 28th, 2017, Carrie & Lowell Live was released as album and movie on Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty. The film is available for free on Vimeo and YouTube.

Songs

All songs written by Sufjan Stevens, unless stated otherwise.

  • Redford (For Yia-Yia And Pappou)
  • Death With Dignity
  • Should Have Known Better
  • All Of Me Wants All Of You
  • John My Beloved
  • The Only Thing
  • Fourth Of July
  • No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross
  • Carrie & Lowell
  • Drawn To The Blood
  • Eugene
  • Vesuvius
  • Futile Devices
  • Blue Bucket Of Gold
  • Blue Bucket Outro
  • Hotline Bling (Aubrey Graham, Timmy Thomas, Paul Jeffries)

Performers

  • Casey Foubert
  • Dawn Landes
  • James McAlister
  • Steve Moore
  • Sufjan Stevens

The song Hotline Bling is by Drake and features Gallant as guest vocalist.

The Greatest Gift

Sufjan Stevens - The Greatest Gift (music.sufjan.com)

Sufjan Stevens – The Greatest Gift

Happily, it still wasn’t done. The Greatest Gift Mixtape – Outtakes, Remixes & Demos from Carrie & Lowell, in short The Grestest Gift, consists of outtakes and unreleased material of the Carrie & Lowell sessions.

In combination with Carrie & Lowell Live, The Greatest Gift provides new insights to the fantastic Carrie & Lowell album.

Songs

All songs written by Sufjan Stevens.

  • Wallowa Lake Monster
  • Drawn To The Blood (Sufjan Stevens Remix)
  • Death With Dignity (Helado Negro Remix)
  • John My Beloved (iPhone Demo)
  • Drawn To The Blood (Fingerpicking Remix)
  • The Greatest Gift
  • Exploding Whale (Doveman Remix)
  • All Of Me Wants All Of You (Helado Negro Remix)
  • Fourth Of July (900X Remix)
  • The Hidden River Of My Life
  • City Of Roses
  • Carrie & Lowell (iPhone Demo) (Digital exclusive / Hidden track on CD)

In closing

The entire Carrie & Lowell project provided three albums and once again proved just how good Sufjan Stevens is as singer, song writer and artist. It’s an impressive trilogy on love, desertion, loneliness, hope, sdaness, longing, connection and forgiveness. I really can’t recommend this album enough. Buy, rent, borrow, whatever, but please listen!

Video/Spotify
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Sufjan Stevens releases the beautiful, demure and moving Carrie & Lowell. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.