Saturday, December 19, 2015

Album of the Year: Sufjan Stevens's Carrie & Lowell

It was one of the many 2 AM nights in March when, taking a break from whatever novel I was reading for comps, I discovered that Pitchfork was streaming Sufjan Stevens's new album. So I decided to listen casually to it as I continued reading, but I quickly found Stevens's soft, sober vocals and jarringly minimalist instrumentals wholly absorbing.  Few albums have struck me so suddenly and powerfully: I distinctly remember sitting in my chair, paralyzed, with tears welling up in my eyes as Stevens so gently--so graciously!--described the night of his mother's death: "The hospital asked should the body be cast / Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky. / Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth / Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?"

A weathered photograph of a man and woman with the album title and artist written on the image in whiteListening that night, the album's profound and complex emotions slowly unraveled before me, and I became helplessly captivated. Not much has changed since then.  Upon countless listens, I've found myself awed by Stevens's descriptions of love, heartbreak, depression, and devotion, all of which he centers around his relationships with his often-absent and deeply troubled mother (Carrie) and his heroically loving and seemingly consistently present stepfather (Lowell).  In his storytelling, Stevens proves extremely generous, as he's exceedingly appreciative of his stepfather and, most powerfully, forgiving and understanding of his emotionally and often physically unavailable mother.  When discussing Carrie, Stevens actually never shows resentment; rather, he succinctly and dispassionately recounts his mom's past negligence ("When I was three, maybe four / She left us at that video store") and insurmountable distance ("I just wanted to be near you," he devastatingly repeats in "Eugene").

Even when depicting his despair, Stevens often finds moments of brightness: he ends an otherwise devastating "Should Have Known Better" with a glimmer of optimism ("My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings--illumination") and begins the crestfallen "Eugene" with comedy, describing how his name was frequently mispronounced as "Subaru."  These lighter moments provide much needed levity and hope, considering that C&L's centerpiece features the constant refrain "We're all gonna die."  This album, then, is heavy, as its subject matter damn near requires, but Stevens brilliantly allows a few strokes of light to gleam in the record's otherwise immense darkness.

One of my favorite moments of the album's brightness comes on "The Only Thing," when Stevens sings "I want to save you from your sorrow" and the song's slow pace quickens with gorgeous, chimey guitars.  It's subtle, sure, but there's this jolt of hope, of optimism, that nicely and almost necessarily counters the existential doom of the previous "We're all gonna die" declarations.  Lyrically, the line is especially poignant because Sufjan obscures whether he sings from his own or his mother's perspective.  Who's saving whom from sorrow?  The opaque language here, and elsewhere, is wonderfully fitting, as Carrie, Stevens's album explains, left such an imprint on Stevens that he doesn't seem ontologically separate from her.  Thus, her words and perspective meld imperceptibly with Sufjan's.  Despite wanting to be "near her," Stevens now finds Carrie both impossibly distant and hauntingly omnipresent.  Though this realization sounds bleak, on this line it's incredibly moving: both mother and son want to rescue the other from despair, and the song's sudden burst of momentum implies that they each might succeed.

2015 was an amazing year for music, but no record could match Carrie and Lowell's awe-inspiring blend of beauty and emotional depth.  Echoing both despair and hope, the album explores the pangs of rejection and the intense suffering one experiences during a mother's death.  That Stevens can do just that so elegantly, so tactfully, is amazing, but he uses his sorrow for something more: a plea for empathy and forgiveness.  By forgiving his mother, Stevens offers the most powerful articulation of unconditional, enduring love that I've ever heard played to music.  For that reason alone, C&L is a classic, the greatest album of the year and of Stevens's impressive catalogue.

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