Sound — 7
From right out of the gate, Sufjan Stevens had a drive to be an extraordinary musician. The versatility of being a multi-instrumentalist was one thing, bouncing between a few differently-genred bands was another thing, but the biggest evidence of his ambition is found in the variance of his solo work. From the multicultural-inspired indie folk debut of "A Sun Came" and the trippy experimental electronica follow-up, "Enjoy Your Rabbit," to the showtunes-y "Illinois" and the cinematic electronica grandeur of "The Age of Adz," Stevens has always been inclined to shake up his compositional and conceptual perspective, and up the ante with each record.
Recent years have been tough for Stevens, personally. After the death of his mother in 2012 (whom he had a very tenuous relationship throughout his life), Stevens decided he would write an album dedicated to her. But instead of cranking up the extravagance of his songwriting to 11 in order to fashion a grandstanding eulogy (like the way The Mars Volta's heady debut album, "De-Loused in the Comatorium," was inspired and dedicated to the tragic death of Cedric Bixler-Zavala's friend, Julio Venegas), Stevens decided to take the exact opposite route and boil his musical expression down to the basics, resulting in his seventh album, "Carrie & Lowell."
Feeling it to be most necessary way in expressing his candid feelings of grief, his approach to the music side of the album is very minimal, folky and morose; essentially being the sparsest compositions Stevens has ever made. The most bare-boned of which come in the "vocals and guitar only" tracks "Eugene" and "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross," as well as the tranquil, guitar-less "John My Beloved," and there's a strange, nearly paradoxical boldness in this scarce approach for Stevens, especially when one has the context of Stevens' lavish songwriting from previous albums.
But even with adhering to a "less is more" mentality throughout "Carrie & Lowell," Stevens still makes the best of his modest and delicate creative space without needing to expand to vast horizons: "Should Have Known Better" starts as a minimal track of fingerpicked acoustic arpeggios and vocals, but soon sprouts up choral pads, jingle bells and a keyboard melody throughout its progression; the high chord strumming of "All of Me Wants All of You" later recruits a mournful electric guitar and pensive synth pads; and the soft piano chords that drive "Fourth of July" are reinforced with a strong array of glistening, peripheral synth layers. Stevens makes a good case for the worth of nuance throughout the album, but on the other hand, there's also a fair amount of repetition that is more or less unavoidable in this smaller space - along with the arpeggio progressions that make up the majority of songs, the ethereal-toned denouements of "Should Have Known Better," "All of Me Wants All of You," "Drawn to the Blood," "Carrie & Lowell" and "Blue Bucket of Gold" are basically the same in aesthetic, which grow dull as later tracks repeat the same tropes.
Lyrics — 10
In keeping the music aspect simple, Stevens was most concerned with making "Carrie & Lowell" a lyric-driven album, and without a doubt, the lyrical aspect is the most powerful aspect of the album. Stevens has divulged that his only intact memories of his mother were the few times in his early age that he and his brother visited her at her home in Oregon. The memories Stevens musters up onto songs are vivid but not necessarily gleeful - from "Lemon yogurt, remember I pulled at your shirt / I dropped the ashtray on the floor" in "Eugene," to the semi-traumatic recollection "when I was three, three maybe four / she left us at that video store" in "Should Have Known Better" - and he later addresses being unable to escape his grief even outside of the memories ("Should I tear my eyes out? / everything I see returns to you somehow" in "The Only Thing") as well as the emptiness of his endeavor to write songs about his past memories of her ("What's the point of singing songs / if they'll never even hear you?" in "Eugene."
Despite knowing full and well the flawed relationship he had with his mother, the many harsh feelings Stevens reveals on the album aren't focused on her, but rather, on himself. He harangues himself for a failed attempt at reimagining the past in "Should Have Known Better" ("Nothing can be changed / the past is still the past"), addresses his faith slipping away from him in "Drawn to the Blood" ("For my prayer has always been love / what did I do to deserve this?"), and airs out his nihilistic feelings in the wake of her passing in "The Only Thing" ("Do I care if I despise this? Nothing else matters, I know") and "John My Beloved" ("There's only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking, I'm dead"). Stevens may still be digging for peace within the mound of these negative feelings, but if there's any sort of resolution that can be found, it's in "Death and Dignity" ("I forgive you mother, I can hear you / and I long to be near you / but every road leads to an end"), where Stevens voices his peace and acceptance towards the unchangeable, and unfortunately cruel, realities of life.
Overall Impression — 9
Face value would paint the sparseness of "Carrie & Lowell" as a step down from the elaborate brilliance shown in Stevens' other albums, but the anti-grandeur approach of this album ends up having as much impact as its predecessors, and duly makes for an ingenious way to not be drowned in the shadow of "The Age of Adz." Had "Carrie & Lowell" tried to brashly one-up Stevens' previous album in terms of power and size, things may have gotten too complicated or stale. But the quaint and fragile nature of "Carrie & Lowell" is exactly what Stevens needed in order to express himself in this particular case, and from the down-to-earth composition to the painstakingly heartfelt lyrics, he executes his expression with flying colors.