‘Carrie & Lowell’ a resonant recounting of artist’s complex relationship with his mother, stepfather
In 2003, Sufjan Stevens released a concept album entitled “Michigan,” with the declaration he would release an album for every one of the United States from that point on in his record-making career. He followed that up two years later with “Illinois.”
But despite positive critical response, Stevens decided to abandon the 50 states project, explaining that such ideas had been promotional and amounted to little else.
Thank God. If he had stuck with conceptual, state-based albums, we would not have been introduced to “Carrie & Lowell,” perhaps Steven’s greatest album, and certainly the best album of 2015.
In a year that saw the soul-shattering return of Adele, an umpteenth and unwanted comeback by Madonna, and Kendrick Lamar releasing a poorly named but otherwise good album, this clearly won’t go uncontested.
However, there are any number of reasons Stevens’ album can be placed above the fray, as well as one or two of a more epistemological nature for why “Carrie & Lowell” blows its competition out of the water.
“Carrie & Lowell,” Steven’s seventh album, consists of 11 songs written about his mother, who died in 2012. The album is not so much inspired by Carrie as it is a testament to her. The Lowell referred to in second half of the title is Stevens’ stepfather and the co-founder of his record label, Asthmatic Kitty.
The album refers to Oregon so often as to suggest that Stevens may have been attempting to allusively continue his 50 states project. A few tracks on the album were even recorded on an iPhone in a hotel room in Klamath Falls.
But Oregon is also where Carrie moved to after abandoning Stevens when he was a young child; Stevens and his brother would visit her there on occasion during summer vacations. References range from the state bird (the meadowlark) to the Tillamook Burn to a community swimming pool in Eugene. As lyrical content they paint beautiful pictures of supposedly fond memories, sung in a fuzzy manner that gives Stevens’ voice a sort of long shadow.
And while the lithe timbre of his voice and the pastoral simplicity of the landscape described in his lyrics sway listeners into a dreamy lull, the subject matter is far more morose than heard at first glance.
His songs depict Stevens as a confused little boy, grappling with his schizophrenic mother’s rejection. “I just wanted to be near you,” he sings several times in “Eugene,” a song that is sonically melodious but once more driven by the emotional undercurrent of Stevens’ haunted voice.
A more downtrodden track, “Blue Bucket of Gold,” played in as close to a dirge as most modern music comes, asks, “Friend, why don’t you love me?” and “… Just when I want you in my life,” moving from the more infantile demands of someone wanting unconditional love to a more forgiving adult realizing he’s lost any chance at reconciliation. The dichotomy of emotions Stevens felt while coping with his mother’s death are most apparent in this song, which is one of the strongest on the album, helped along by a soft rustle of some sweeping “oohs” following the choruses.
The musical simplicity of “Carrie & Lowell” belies the emotional depth of the lyrics. Employing a variety of instruments and deftly evoking a number of genres, Stevens crafts a return to a more layered acoustic sound than his previous album — 2010’s “The Age of Adz,” which was spliced with electronica and more closely attuned to popular music of today.
Unlike today’s pop stars, who define themselves more by the genres they believe will produce the most monetary benefit or followers on Instagram, Stevens maintains a structured authenticity, simply by writing honest songs with honest intentions.
Additional standout tracks: “Death with Dignity,” “Should Have Known Better,” “The Only Thing.”
Other popular music notables from 2015:
Song of the Year — “Han Solo,” Bob Schneider.
Album Cover of the Year — “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,” Belle and Sebastian.
Music Video of the Year — “Ballad of the Mighty,” Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.
Worst Album of the Year — “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz,” Miley Cyrus.
Worst Song of the Year — “On my Mind,” Ellie Goulding.
Worst Album Cover of the Year — “Rebel Heart,” Madonna.
Worst Music Video of the Year — “One Last Time,” Ariana Grande.
Caitlin Beesley is a part-time sports reporter for the Lewiston Tribune. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.