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SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, while listening to BBC 6 Music early in the morning, I had one of those rare magical moments, when you hear a song and its lyrics and melody are so mesmerising that they touch something deep inside and make the world, even for a few seconds, a better place for hearing them. The song, as I later discovered, was ‘No shade in the shadow of the cross’, which features on American singer–songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, Carrie & Lowell.

carrieandlowellcdcoverindexNamed for Stevens’ mother and stepfather, Carrie & Lowell is a relentlessly heartbreaking, pared-back work of brilliance. Quite different to Stevens’ previous studio albums, it brings to mind early Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. The 11 songs track the sorrow, devastation, confusion and resolution that come from the death of a loved one. It’s a deceptively easy listen – the music so seamlessly beautiful, Stevens’ voice so breathtakingly haunting – yet the lyrics reveal the intensity of emotion; his tone the hollowness of grief.

The story behind the album is well documented. Carrie, Stevens’ mother, left home when Stevens was one. She suffered from depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Stevens and his siblings were brought up by their father and stepmother and only saw Carrie intermittently over the years. She married Lowell Brams in the 1980s and at his prompting began a relationship with her children again. Stevens and his siblings spent several summers with the couple in Oregon and the album gives more than a nod to that time and to the musician’s own enduring relationship with Lowell, who kept in touch even after the marriage ended and today runs Stevens’ indie record label. But more than that, Carrie & Lowell shows Stevens at his most vulnerable, at his most raw, all defenses down, dealing with his mother’s death from cancer in 2012.

It’s an honest album, a narrative of grief in many ways, which draws on myth, fable and religion to tell its tale, to reach that place beyond sorrow, where forgiveness reigns and contentment and resolution lie. As Stevens himself says, ‘It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death – to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.’*

Carrie & Lowell resonates. It’s gorgeous, without a doubt, but its lyrics also hit home. In ‘Death with dignity’, Stevens sings ‘I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end…’ Other songs make reference to abandonment, suicide, Stevens’ own drinking and his total inability to cope at times – ‘Fuck me, I’m falling apart’, he confesses at one point. And yet, in his lyrics there is love – more than that, there’s hope.

In ‘Should have known better’, while the musician recalls, ‘when I was three, three maybe four/She left us at that video store’, he ends with ‘My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination.’

This is a joyous image. A reminder that even after death, there is life. And that even in the darkest of circumstances, there is always, somewhere, light.

 

Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty), released 30 March 2015. Sufjan is on tour in North America and appears at The End of the Road festival in the UK in September.

 

Notes: *’True Myth: A conversation with Sufjan Stevens’, Ryan Dombal, 16 February 2015, Pitchfork; ‘Amethyst and flowers on the table’ and ‘Fuck me, I’m falling apart’ from ‘Death with dignity’ and ‘No shade in the shadow of the cross’, respectively, tracks 1 and 10 from Carrie & Lowell.

 

See also: ‘Dreams of love’, Bert Jansch’

 

 

 

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