“What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?” You’re too modest, Suf.
In case you’ve been living in grottos for the past decade, Sufjan Stevens is the best singer/songwriter of the naughties, and I would say that even if he only had Illinois on his resume, and one of the few artists that I should think would appeal to everyone and their mothers and their mothers’ mothers; immensely likeable because he approaches his subjects and subject matter with such sincerity that he never falls prey to pretentiousness. And Carrie & Lowell might be his most likeable album yet because of how approachable it is: it’s his shortest album (generally speaking, aside from Seven Swans, he enjoys maxing out on real estate), which means it’s filler-free (something that the grand Illinois and grandiose The Age of Adz were somewhat guilty of), and it’s a deeply personal album, wherein he talks about his relationship (or lack thereof) with his recently-departed mother, and the psychological consequences thereafter; if you’re not privy to it already, the interview with Pitchfork is worth a read.
That being said, I wouldn’t say it’s his best album, and to be honest, when I first heard Carrie & Lowell, I was disappointed. Disappointed because if you’ve only heard this album, you wouldn’t know that you were in the presence of the most ambitious composer that the ‘singer/songwriter’ label has ever seen (recall the multi-voice arrangements in songs like “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” and the final third of “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!” or basically all of The Age of Adz); despite the fact that there are guest musicians on this album, you’d think it was recorded completely by Sufjan Stevens in the dark corners of his bedroom with nothing else but an acoustic guitar and piano. And I’d argue that the sparer songs found on preceding albums (ie. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Futile Devices,” to name a few) are better than the any of the ones found here.
More problematically, Sufjan Stevens’ plight here is his and his own, such that you’re just as often grokking his lyrics as you are empathizing with them, and the difference between these similar words is one of them is that the latter is a much more personal connection between artist and listener. And just so we’re clear, that is not because I can’t relate to his relationship with his mother because I haven’t experienced it firsthand; I have never experienced the death of a significant other either, but I was still moved by “Casimir Pulaski Day.” (Speaking of, compare the feelings of uselessness in the face of death explored in that song with that of “Fourth of July” and tell me which one is more effective.)
But broadly speaking, I get nothing out of lyrics that evoke Oregon’s history or geographical location (which seem to consciously make Carrie & Lowell the third of Sufjan Stevens’ never-to-be-finished 50 States project); “Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?” (“Fourth of July”) or “Found myself on Specer’s Butte” (“All of Me Wants All of You”) or “Drag me to hell in the valley of the Dalles” (“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”) are just some of many examples. And I get even less out of the many lyrics that evoke metaphors, often mythological or otherwise: “In this light you look just like Poseidon” (from “All of Me Wants All of You”; no one describe men like this, do they?), “Perseus aligned with the skull / Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all” (“The Only Thing”) (or the Oedipal reference later that same song) and “I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart / Lonely vampire” (“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”). Elsewhere, I’m more invested in “Fourth of July” because of its melody rather than his mother’s endless list of affectionate pet-names for her son (“My little hawk, why do you cry”). I don’t doubt that others connect deeply to this album, but the amount of people saying that they broke down from all the “feels” come off as overly hyperbolic.
This is in stark contrast to the other lyrics that are stated plainly or evoke such detail that they successfully bring you into Sufjan’s labyrinthine world of cul-de-sac upon cul-de-sac. This is perhaps why “Eugene” is my favorite song here: “Remember I pulled at your shirt / Dropped the ashtray on the floor / I just wanted to be near you”; “The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my name / [So] he called me ‘Subaru’”; “Some part of me was lost in your sleeve / Where you hid your cigarettes”; “From the bed near your death, and all the machines that made a mess,” before the concluding couplet that more successfully captures depression than most any other artist I’ve heard: “For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me / Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away.” And I’m a sucker for how he phrases the finger-picking; the louder pings have a melody of their own, and he ends each verse with a hooky cadence.
Other details worthy of note: the similar sentiment of “Eugene” in “Death With Dignity” (“I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you”) whose only flaw otherwise is that the piano melody in the bridge just regurgitates the vocal melody; the toy piano line that comes in halfway through “Should Have Known Better” and carries the rest of the track through; the disconnected relationship summed up in the line “You checked your texts while I masturbated” in “All of Me Wants All of You” that he sings without drawing attention to the key word as most any other artist would have done; the call and response hook in that same song; the couplet, “I love you more than the world can contain / In its lonely and ramshackle head” in “John My Beloved,” which rests on muted plinks of what sounds like he’s tinkering inside the piano; the vocal harmonies throughout “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.” And strong melodies provide lovely hooks throughout (it’s not often that a someone can repeat “We’re all going to die” and make it cathartic) as well as successful atmospheric outros that more often come out of nowhere than they are built towards (compare the outro of “Should Have Known Better” with that of “All of Me Wants All of You”) but despite that, still feel natural.