2015’s most personal record, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, isn’t an easy listen. From start to finish, this is an emotionally taxing album that comes from a genuinely tortured period of the artists life. It finds Sufjan dealing with the recent death of his estranged mother, who left him at a very young age and who hangs over the entire record like a terrible Freudian spectre. Stevens’ lyrics on Carrie & Lowell are frequently addressed directly to his mother, and say the things he wishes he could have told her while she was alive. For this reason, listening to the album has an almost voyeuristic quality to it: there are very few musicians brave enough to lay the entirety of their tormented psyche bare as Stevens does here. Take the lyrics of opener ‘Death With Dignity’, for example, which seems to take place in the immediate aftermath of Carrie’s death:
‘I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I want to be near you / But every road leads to an end / Your apparition passes through me’
The way that Stevens voice picks up those final two words and stretches them out into a delicate falsetto is absolutely heartbreaking, and the plucked banjo underneath provides a simple yet beautiful musical backdrop. Throughout the album, Stevens’ playing is similarly sparse, with a number of tracks consisting of nothing but banjo and voice. But his raw, vocal honesty and ambiguous imagery make these tracks feel much more complex than they are. ‘Drawn to the Blood’, one of the bleakest songs on the record, features some wonderfully symbolic lyrics on top of darkly strummed chords:
‘I’m drawn to the blood / The flight of a one-winged dove / How did this happen?’
Perhaps my favourite track on the record, though, is ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’, a track with a gorgeous, winding acoustic guitar melody that serves as the climax to Stevens psychological turmoil:
‘I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart / Lonely vampire inhaling its fire / I’m chasing the dragon too far / There’s blood on that blade / Fuck me, I’m falling apart’
And then, at the very end of the track, he finds solace in faith: ‘There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross’. It’s an ambiguous emotional resolution, but one that suggests a path to recovery, and in this way it strikes me as representative of the record as a whole. Carrie & Lowell is an album about working through emotional trauma and coming out on the right side of it, and it’s this cathartic quality that makes the album so universal. Whatever kind of pain the listener brings to it, Carrie & Lowell will be there with a comforting hand on the shoulder, saying things are fucked, but lets try and understand them.