Sparse in the elaborate repertoire of Sufjan Stevens is an album born without a concept.
Be it of the flittering “50 states project” (Michigan and Illinois), BAM-commissioned “programmatic tone poetry” (The BQE), B-sides/Christmas song collections or otherwise, very few Sufjan releases have slipped by without receiving their “concept album” branding.
Carrie & Lowell, however—though driven largely by a few linked themes—is not a concept album. There is no blueprinted sieve through which he’s sluiced his prolificacy; there’s no greater mission or singular story to tell. Carrie & Lowell is simply the intimate unraveling of Sufjan’s thoughts on life, death, dedication, faith and the innate complexities of human interaction.
As heralded by its three leading singles ("No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross," "Should Have Known Better" and "Carrie & Lowell"), Carrie & Lowell is a return to form of sorts, reflecting the hushed, folk-heavy nature of earlier albums like Michigan and Seven Swans. And While folk music and mystical storytelling has always held a role in Sufjan's music, even in his further-from-the-grain releases (The Age of Adz, Enjoy Your Rabbit, The BQE), it's only in Carrie & Lowell that Stevens illustrates the more traditionally reserved nature of folk music as something to fall back on. Thus, with Carrie & Lowell, the ever-experimenting Sufjan Stevens takes his first conscious step back to a former style.
Named for his mother, Carrie, and stepfather, Lowell—both of whom are pictured in the album's cover art—Carrie & Lowell's thematic spotlight centers predominantly on Sufjan's relationship with (and without) Carrie. The pair's family ties were always strained, with Carrie parting from her Michigan family and moving to Oregon when Sufjan was just one year old. Carrie died of stomach cancer in 2012, and the majority of Carrie & Lowell acts as a sort of coping mechanism as Stevens lays bare his longing and forgiveness on the majority of its tracks ("Death With Dignity," "Fourth of July," "Carrie & Lowell," "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross"—to name a few particular highlights). Yet, digging deeper, this longing manifests itself throughout Carrie & Lowell as a catalyst for insecurity, as lines about the album's key players are accompanied by a lingering air of doubt and a denial of acceptance.
Lowell's importance in Sufjan's upbringing is by and large relegated to "Eugene." With a melding of light finger-picking and hovered-hush melody that channels the late Nick Drake, "Eugene" is about the only place on Carrie & Lowell that Stevens offers a hint of solace (save for a warmly worded reference to his niece on "Should Have Known Better"), as he sings about "the man who taught me to swim," who "couldn't quite say my first name," (apparently Lowell would refer to a young Sufjan as "Subaru"). Still, even on "Eugene," that doubtful shadow lingers, and before the curtain drops, the song's lyrical perspective shifts to present day: "now I'm drunk and afraid / wishing the world would go away / what's the point of singing songs / if they'll never even hear you?" Such a line casts a rather unsettling glow on one whose known for their prolificacy's two concurrent five-year gaps in releasing a new studio album.
Yet Carrie & Lowell doesn't always show its hand quite so forthrightly. With an emphasis on soft-handed, rustic string-work and hushed, conservatively spaced out vocal melodies, the album's low-key tone often disguises its intricately mosaicked lyricism. On the surface of "All of Me Wants All of You," a scant 13 lines focus on a relationship of a different sort, be it of an exasperated romance or a half-hearted shortform liaise. Still, that coupling is met with a similar mindset of disconnect, longing and doubt as that centered on Carrie's death. The relation of the song's named "Manelich" to Sufjan is left unclear, but briefly following her mention are analogies that seem to run parallel to the strain of he and his mother, as he goes on to reference Oregon landmark Spencer's Butte to introduce lines that meld fantastical mysticism with ghastly interactions.
With the added context of Carrie & Lowell, "The 50 States Project" (and Illinois in particular) seems utterly reflexive—an excuse to put words and notes to paper through high concept and lengthy, instructional allegories. Not to suggest they're haphazard or superfluous, as what is Michigan if not a heartwarming and incredibly well researched tribute to one's home state? Still, despite its light-handed approach, Carrie & Lowell strikes with a sort of urgency unparalleled across the composer's 15-year career. Each song feels like a demon Sufjan simply had to face sooner than later—so much so that he sums up the album's ethos in its very first song, "Death with Dignity." In a few short words, Stevens elucidates the exasperated plight of his longing, determination and forgiveness in the face of the inevitable: "I forgive you, Mother / I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end."