By Brier Stucky Sufjan Stevens‘ seventh studio album Carrie & Lowell is his most simple, stripped down album to date. The project bears the name of his birth mother and her second husband Lowell, both of whom had limited interaction with Stevens until recently when he reconnected with her before her death in 2012. The album’s simplicity is also its beauty, featuring minimal pieces consisting of Stevens and his guitar with flourishes of other instrumentation. While this project lacks the massive scope and ambition of his previous work, such as his albums Michigan and Illinoise, Carrie & Lowellis an excellent album in its own right, focusing on lyrics and emotional atmosphere.
The album opens with the beautiful “Death with Dignity”, which features a bright guitar riff and soft spoken vocals from Stevens. The track, along with much of the album, delves into Stevens’ past, describing memories from Stevens early life and reflections on it. Many of these stories relate to his mother, who abandoned his family when Stevens was young. The narrative is described in detail on the somber, ethereal “Should Have Known Better”, one of the albums best tracks. It begins with a chilling guitar melody and quiet vocals, then swells into a beautiful track as backing choir vocals are added. The track’s atmosphere and emotional lyrics make it a very memorable piece on the album.
In many ways, Carrie & Lowell feels very similar to Bon Iver’s 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, as both albums masterfully portray feelings of isolation and reflection. However, Stevens’ project captures these emotions in intricate and instrumentally layered pieces, such as “Drawn to the Blood”, which begins with just Stevens and his guitar, then transitions to an atmospheric instrumental. The album interestingly pairs dark song topics with relaxing and often peaceful sounding instrumentals, which provide an intriguing contrast. The dreamy, ambient “Fourth of July” sounds beautiful, but gives a detailed account of his mother’s death, described in a poetic fashion. It’s heartbreaking and entrancing all at once, as with many songs on the project.
Carrie & Lowell may not be as thematic or conceptual as Stevens’ past work, but still features the beautiful instrumentation and detailed stories that make Stevens such an interesting artist. The album stands out in his catalog as his most personal and heart-wrenching album to date, with its minimalistic tone serves as a great contrast to his past work. Stevens’ latest is heartbreaking and reassuring all at once, allowing the listener to put themselves in the context of these songs and reflect on their own lives. It’s not very often that music can be so compelling and engulfing, but Carrie & Lowell does an excellent job of stirring up the feelings the listener, all while getting lost in the album’s sparse atmosphere.