One evening late last year I watched the pilot of a show that a friend recommended to me. It was ok, somewhat intriguing, and though I watched another episode or two ultimately I decided the show wasn’t for me. The pilot however gifted me with the best body of music that I listened to that year, an album that’s going to stick with me forever.
I thought the intro music was beautiful, so I went looking for the song that it came from. To my happy surprise, it was by Sufjan Stevens, an artist I already knew and liked. I replayed the song, “Death with Dignity”, over and over on YouTube, and slowly started listening to others from the album. This grew into listening to the album in full, and finally buying it.
The year was practically over by then, and I had heard a lot of other new music. When Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” came out I was impressed, and thought that it might be the defining sound-memory of the year for me. After a few listens, the songs I wasn’t super comfortable with started to grate on me and I played it less and less. I thought I might not find an album of the year after all – no biggie, not something I typically look out for. Then “Carrie & Lowell” came along.
Stevens started composing after the death of his mother, Carrie. Lowell is his stepfather. The album was released in 2015, and each song sounds light and soothing. I hardly noticed the lyrics in the beginning, but the more I listened, the more I realised that they dealt with intense emotions and pulled the curtain back on his childhood and his grief. He cries out to the “God of Elijah” and wonders what the point of singing is if “they’ll never even hear you”. The album is intensely personal, and there are points in several songs that bring me near tears from the incredible mix of the beauty of the music and the pain in the words.
“Carrie & Lowell” is nostalgic, with Stevens remembering things like learning to swim, and his mother leaving him at a video store. It’s mythic and other-worldly, mentioning Greek gods, shadows, vampires. It’s woven together with the lightest of touches, primarily guitar, vocals, banjo and piano. And it’s incredibly honest. Stevens doesn’t hide the fact that his mother wasn’t the best parent – leaving him in a store as a toddler – that she suffered from schizophrenia, or that he was on the precipice of committing suicide as he coped with his grief.
There are days when I listen to “Carrie & Lowell” intently. On those days I can’t help but mourn and muddle through the fog of memory and imagery with Stevens as he does the same. Yet there are other days when I play the album in the background and enjoy the lovely river of sound it creates. Some songs I always have to stop and sing, like “Eugene” and “Death with Dignity”. I find comfort and calm in Stevens’ music, despite feeling almost pierced myself with his heartache. Thankfully, I still have all of my parents, but his album gives me a glimpse into what it might feel like when I lose them. For its emotional depth, sweet melodies and coherence, “Carrie & Lowell” is an album I’ll be listening to and sharing for years to come.