Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ smallest – and biggest – yet
“Both my parents died in 2013... this is easily the first song I’ve heard since then that offered me a sort of sonic communion with their memory,” reads one comment below “Fourth of July” on YouTube, where Sufjan Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty has uploaded Carrie & Lowell in its entirety. Of course, the comments section of YouTube is not the first place one would look to find universal wisdom – or wisdom of any kind – but in these small pockets of freehold net real-estate, where YouTube invites you to “share your thoughts”, Carrie & Lowell is given a chance to do its best work: connect listeners to their own personal histories.
This is about family. Carrie & Lowell is private, it’s smaller than anything we’ve known Stevens to do. He’s painted portraits of entire states, brushed against EDM and released more than one Christmas album. He’s a grand-vista kinda guy. But this? No, it’s domestic. You can hear it in Stevens’ voice; it barely rises above a whisper. Maybe he remembered being told: use your inside voice.
Even Carrie & Lowell’s instrumentation is hushed. There’s more space and more silence than ever before. In certain tracks you can hear Stevens’ breathing and, if you listen hard enough, catch an air-conditioner humming away in the background. A synth might hover in the air, layers of vocals will briefly ring out together – but mostly, it’s just Stevens and a guitar. But be careful: don’t mistake softness for sweetness.
’Cause Carrie & Lowell bleeds; there’s so much blood. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” finds “blood on that blade”. The floorboards too, they’re “covered in blood,” Stevens sings in “Carrie & Lowell”, the title track. Are you surprised? Stevens already told us: he’s “Drawn to the Blood”. Remember, the domestic isn’t synonymous with the subdued. Turns out this record isn’t small at all; it’s visceral. It won’t let you get away.
This, Stevens’ most profound album, was born from the privacy of his home; his memory. But Carrie & Lowell is the closest we’ll get to his family. These 11 tracks. Any deeper biography, we’ve written ourselves. At that point, Carrie & Lowell becomes an opportunity to turn our gaze inward.
That YouTube commenter? They had the right idea. Carrie & Lowell’s greatest triumph is the open arms it extends outwards, inviting every listener to connect with their personal stories.