The cover of Sufjan Stevens’s latest album, Carrie & Lowell, is a weathered photograph of the eponymous pair. Carrie was Stevens’s mother, Lowell – Lowell Brams – his stepfather. The album – pared back to basics, all solo guitar and piano and broken vocals – was inspired by his mother’s lingering death in 2012, and by the scattered memories he retains from the three summers he spent with her & Lowell in the early 1980s. His mother suffered from depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism, something Stevens was aware of even at that early age.
Far from a direct memoir – and perfectly in keeping with the abstract auteur of Illinois and The BQE, the latter an exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, part of I-278 which runs between the two boroughs – it chops up time, place, and language, throwing half-remembered scenes from his early life, guilt, myth and religion, and death into a gossamer stream of consciousness.
The guilt – both real on his part, and imagined on his mother’s – is illustrated by and illustrative of Stevens’s take on Christianity, which he moulds to fit his needs, especially in “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”. Biblical loss is the theme of “Drawn To The Blood”, and revelation and wonder and guilt and hope are all that saves the narrator from suicide in “The Only Thing”. The Greek myths are used, too, to describe the emptiness of an incomplete relationship in “All Of Me Wants All Of You” – the death of his mother a catalyst for a re-examination of the rest of his life.
Family seeps through the more effectual compositions, the summers he spent in Oregon with Carrie & Lowell providing his only traditional experiences, his home life with his father and stepmother in Michigan described more accurately elsewhere as a tenancy agreement. In “Eugene”, he sings fondly of the city, and describes happy times with Lowell, although a yearning for Carrie pervades. Stevens would stay in touch with Lowell after Brams divorced his mother, and he is the director of Stevens’s record label, Asthmatic Kitty.
The delicacy of memory, and frustration of an incomplete narrative, are brought to the fore in both “Should Have Known Better” – where he fictionalises his mother’s exit from his life, and the obscurity of the obvious it brought in its wake, something only reversed by the arrival of his niece – and “Fourth Of July” – an abstract conversation with his mother, planning for her death, and an admission from her (and presumably) that she did the right thing by abandoning him as a child.
Although Stevens is renowned for an odd kind of concept album, and it is tempting to ascribe the same motives to Carrie & Lowell, it’s really not. What it is is beautiful and raw and delicate and holistic and arresting. Spending time with it is rewarding and enhancing – there’s strength in its fragility.
Carrie & Lowell is released on March 30th on Asthmatic Kitty Records