“Carrie & Lowell“
by tom Johnson
And I don’t know where to begin.
Pick a time in the past; we’ll call it childhood. A time when we think that all sadness has a ready-made antithesis, that all darkness has a light waiting to take its place. The songs we listen to and the films we watch tell us this repeatedly. Our parents and teachers tell us this. Everything will be ok in the end. And we believe it, and we grow and then we find an ulterior notion, slowly taking the place of what we knew; the discarded remains of wishful thinking and a whole new world to learn of. Some things last a long time, and sadness is some thing, and a whole lot more.
The comprehension of this, transposed to the artistic world, came most discernibly to me through Cormac McCarthy. An author who dangled the ideas of love and beauty as a carrot, hung rotten and scorched in the dry heat of the day and always just out of reach. Relevant, significant, meaningful, crucial but so far removed from the perception that life is cruel and severe to barely matter at all.
Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
It’s hard not to think of McCarthy’s scorched vision of the world when hearing Sufjan Steven’s new record, Carrie & Lowell. The striking sense of solemnity hangs like a noose around its neck, rugged and impossible to ignore, from the first moment to the last. There’s barely any let-up. No moment of caress to lighten the mood, no effort at all to make this less challenging; no prayer ever answered, no shade in the shadow of the cross. Death, in all of its magnificent power and subtle harrowing, hangs like a blanket of cloud across the whole record and Carrie & Lowell never attempts to hide away from this. It’s in every nook, every grain of dirt which sits upon its sparse landscape. From the song-titles to the lyrics, the ‘D’ word crops up obviously and continually; an inescapable truth personified through song. There are other parallels to McCarthy’s work, too. Sufjan also places much of this record within the barren outlands of a country that McCarthy so impeccably brought to life. We hear of cedars, of tired old mares with the wind in their hair, of willow trees offering no retreat, and they invariably set the backdrop for each of these eleven melodramas to play-out.
Stylistically, it’s a far cry from previous full-length Age Of Adz but that too was a record consumed by self-analysis and Sufjan’s place within the world, and in that respect perhaps this is less of a departure as previously thought. However you choose to view it, it’s true to say that despite the uneasy landscape it inhabits, Stevens has never sounded more comfortable. And it makes sense, given his history. His Age Of Adz live shows were rightly heralded; an egotistical unrolling of his warped vision brought to life in the most magnificent way – all exploding volcanoes and angel wings. But when thinking back to that show now, one of the greatest pop concerts ever witnessed, it isn’t the bombast that sticks but the moment he curtailed the whole night; out-front, alone, singing John Wayne Gacy Jr to an electrified, exhilarated audience and flicking the mood in a heartbeat; the crushing sense of silence sticking like a choke in the back of a throat that suddenly felt crippled by the unexpected weight of sadness. And it’s that momentous delicacy that is recalled throughout Carrie & Lowell, from the bleak depiction of the land and its force upon him on ‘Death With Dignity’ and ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ to the confrontational rumination of his own endeavours in ‘Drawn To The Blood’ where he asks: “My prayer has always been love; what did I do to deserve this?”
Much like the traumatic worlds and characters that McCarthy creates in his stories, there is a lacing of beauty – of love and all of its earthy tenticles – running throughout Carrie & Lowell, and while it never does enough to shift the hefty timbre, its presence is crucial to providing the record with humanity, with a beating heart, no matter how weary it feels. Darkness without context is a nonentity after all. McCarthy knew this and Sufjan knows it too; Carrie & Lowell would cease to be if it didn’t at least hint at some form of redemption, and so there are minimal traces of light, a glimpse of something indistinct, too far off to even consider but enough to provide a frame for all that happens within. Sufjan’s trust in this waxes and wanes from track to track but the glimpses are enough. “I should have known better, nothing can be changed, the past is still the past; the bridge to nowhere” he sings on ‘I Should Have Known Better’ before imploring us to “Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while there is light” on ‘Fourth Of July’ – a track which itself closes upon the refrain of “we’re all going to die, we’re all going to die, we’re all going to die” repeated as if the truest of all trues has finally just been substantiated.
Completely susceptible and adaptable to the surroundings it’s consumed within, the album feels ever shifting; a room that’s altered constantly, but gently, by the the light that falls through the windows and colours the walls. At times it’s a country record, a meticulously and sparse sound only ever altered with minor flourishes of instrumentation. An occasional layering of vocals. A small burst of slide guitar. The lyrics too, so flawlessly penned and frankly delivered, initially feel steeped in a romanticism for days gone by but then switch suddenly to the present; “You checked your texts while I masturbated” he sighs on ‘All Of Me Wants All Of You’ abruptly bringing us back to the distance and distraction of modernity. Mostly then it exists within its own spacious realm: the archetypal Sufjan, disrobed right down to the very flesh he’s previously adorned so readily and lavishly.
While Carrie & Lowell feels fiercely superior when taken as a whole, ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ still feels forcefully important; even more so given its placing towards the latter end of the record rather than a stand-alone track. Poetic and personal, and unflinching in the evocative face it speaks from, the melancholic posturing feels even more overwhelming given all that’s come before. The moment the blood pours from the wound that has slowly been opening up before it, it finds Stevens finally offering all that he has, amid the comprehension of his own mortality. “I’ll drive that stake through the centre of my heart…there’s blood on that blade, fuck me I’m falling apart” he sings, bringing a culmination of sorts to all the questions he’s previously explored throughout the rest of the tracks on this album.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important question in all of this, which is why, and perhaps how, can we take so much enjoyment from one person’s bleak surroundings. The two people who give the record its title are Sufjan’s own mother and step-father. The record is about his relationship with them, and the death of the former; that we can write so many words without referencing such a thing, and that this record can remain so crushingly, painfully evocative to a much-wider audience than those who also lived through these specific times, with these specific people, is testament to the sense of wonderment and honesty that Sufjan approaches this with.
And so, while the weary desolation of Carrie & Lowell is unceasing, we revel in it; it feels towering and significant. In truth there isn’t really a consistent answer as to why such personal sentiments can affect the listen so wholly; some may take solace within its walls, pinning their own afflictions to his like a soldier standing in line. Others might well just be bewitched by the painstaking skill of the craft that formed it. Perhaps, though, it comes down to one thing, the simple idea that true greatness is greatness no matter how it’s presented to us. Sufjan Stevens has always been among the greats of his time, a radical pioneer of the pop song, the album, the live show. Here however, on Carrie & Lowell, he becomes something else again; a voice and a writer as bold and brave as any other, who has composed something so meaningful it already feels etched in to the very marrow of our collective bones.
We’re all going to die, but we’re all alive and living anyway.
Carrie & Lowell is released on March 30th/31st, via Asthmatic Kitty.