There’s often been an element of the autobiographical in Sufjan Stevens’ work, from the adolescent admissions secreted in Illinoise to the tormented speculations of The Age of Adz.
But rarely have his revelations been as direct, or as personal, as on Carrie & Lowell, a cathartic exercise exploring the effect of his estranged mother Carrie’s death on him two years ago.
Couched in fragmentary memories, classical and biblical allusions, and a degree of self-reproach, and set to simple folk-guitar arrangements tinted with ghostly shimmers of steel guitar and synthesiser waves, it’s suffused with an intimacy and sadness reminiscent of Sun Kil Moon’s meditations on mortality in Benji, except that compared to Mark Kozelek’s blunt baritone, Stevens’ fragile murmur, especially when soaring into its higher register, has a vulnerability that suggests these memories may shatter on too heavy an apprehension.
Descriptive songs – the hospital deathbed visitation of “Fourth of July”; the recollections of childhood summers spent in “Eugene” with Carrie and stepdad Lowell; the disturbing intimations of a possibly abusive relationship in “Drawn to the Blood” – are intermingled alongside more speculative meditations on inheritance and memory, with suggestions that Stevens felt somehow inhabited by his mother’s spirit. Several times he refers to her apparition passing through him, most powerfully in “All of Me Wants All of You”.
Clearly, these have been troubled times for the gifted troubadour – in one song, thoughts of suicide are warded off by “signs and wonders” – but the welcome aspect of his tribulation is the restoration of simplicity and unashamed beauty to Stevens’ work.
The single “Should Have Known Better”, in particular, is surely his most engaging, memorable song since “Chicago”, while the overall gentle, delicate texture of the album is like a gossamer shroud of solace cast over a period of deep confliction.