January 27, 2021

Album of the Year: Sufjan Stevens’ intimate masterpiece


Illuminating everything on the album even when the light is dim is Stevens’s Christian faith and his unerring musicality, which shines as brightly as it ever has in spite of — or maybe because of — how spare this music is. Mostly, it’s just the sound of a guitar and a beautifully tender voice grieving and trying to communicate with the mother he never really knew and also with us.

Will Hermes, NPR

• • •

My favorite album of the year from 2015 is Sufjan Stevens’ intimate masterpiece, Carrie & Lowell. Not since Bon Iver’s devastatingly plaintive For Emma, Forever Ago have I heard an album bleed like this one.

For all its sadness, Carrie and Lowell is impossibly, almost unbearably beautiful. The music and arrangements are delicate, simple, and shimmering. Stevens sings in hushed tones, almost whispering in places. And this deliciously fragile texture supports a deeply personal story of family, pain, memory, and grief.

You have to be careful, listening to Sufjan Stevens’s new album. One minute, the finger-picked guitars and lullaby vocals blend pleasingly into the background. The next, you might catch a line of lyrics and realize he’s singing about his mom’s corpse. Or about heroin. Or about slitting his wrists, “cross hatch / warm bath / Holiday Inn after dark.”

Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic

The title characters, Carrie and Lowell, are Sufjan Stevens’ mother and stepfather. She abandoned her family when the singer was very young, and she suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and substance abuse. She died in 2012. For brief periods of time in his childhood, Stevens spent time with her and his stepdad in Oregon. Images of those days appear throughout this impressionistic effort to come to terms with her undeniable impact and ongoing ghostly presence in his life and emotions.

In an interview with Pitchfork (recommended reading to get a full understanding of the background of this album) Stevens said:

With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe. It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”

It is a gift that Sufjan Stevens has shared his life with us with such raw transparency and beauty through this remarkable album. I’ll leave him the final word about how to listen to music like this.

Don’t listen to this record if you can’t digest the reality of it. I’m being explicit about really horrifying experiences in my life, but my hope has always been to be responsible as an artist and to avoid indulging in my misery, or to come off as an exhibitionist. I don’t want to make the listener complicit in my vulnerable prose poem of depression, I just want to honor the experience. I’m not the victim here, and I’m not seeking other peoples’ sympathy. I don’t blame my parents, they did the best they could.

At worst, these songs probably seem really indulgent. At their best, they should act as a testament to an experience that’s universal: Everyone suffers; life is pain; and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence, so deal with it. I really think you can manage pain and suffering by living in fullness and being true to yourself and all those seemingly vapid platitudes.

Here is the official audio from the opening song on the album, one of my favorites, “Death with Dignity”


  1. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks to my son, I have been familiar with Sufjan Stevens for some years now, although I am not familiar with this album. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. And, by the way, his Christmas album(s) are wonderful too–informal, low-key, and genuine.

    By the way, Happy New Year, Chaplain Mike, and to everybody else too!

  2. This truly is one of the most moving and brutal collection of songs this year. Absolutely love to see it getting some praise. The glaring honesty and reality of the songs, the struggles with sin and grace and even God reminded me a lot of the Psalms.

    This album was more “scriptural” & “christian” than anything I heard from CCM, because it was so honest. It wrestled with God without walking away from Him. It refused to resolve the issues in a pretty bow of “God’s awesome and I love Him”. Sufjan leaves us in the reality of loss – he has to carry on every day with the memories of this person, the pain in his life and no way to resolve them any more. He also leaves us with the reality of wrestling with God – you don’t walk away glorified from the experience, you limp away forever changed by the experience.

    I was fortunate enough to see a performence on the tour for this album and it was just a beautiful experience to share in. Good stuff. Thanks for this post!

  3. I can’t concur more with your choice. As I listened to Sufjan’s ‘testimony’, I was amazed how an album chronicling the abandonment by a mother was full of hope.

    Honourable mention to Julien Baker’s heartbreaking debut “Sprained Ankle”.

  4. Just after midnight
    gunshot in the near distance
    declares the New Year

    • That’s a keeper, Robert.

      • Boring as we are, my wife and I went to sleep before midnight last night. The damned gunshot, some of it obviously nearby and semi-automatic, woke us up. I kept wondering where the bullets would land, and why the sound of a battle in the dark is considered by so many here in the farmland of PA to be a good way to welcome in the New Year. Oh, I get fireworks shows, with all the colors and explosive sounds subverting the dangers of battle while retaining the kinetic excitement; but some drunken fools firing a semi-automatics into the night I don’t get, and don’t want to.

        • It goes back to the 170ss, that stupid gunfire. The predecessors of the mummers in Philly used to go around shooting off guns and making a general racket. It happens lots up here, too. I had several neighbors outside with gun, at midnight and around 12:15. I really hate the “custom,” and I suppose most of the rest of the neighbors do as well, but I don’t think anyone’s going to try to dissuade people carrying .22s. Maybe someday…

  5. Prayers and hopes for a Happy New Year to all.

  6. David Cornwell says

    This morning before anyone else was up (including the dog), I put on my headphones (I am a paying listener of Spotify) and listened to Carrie & Lowell. I’ve had Sufjan listed as a favorite, but had never listened to the totality of this album.

    This Sufjan Stevens’ music is immersed in the real hard stuff of life. Nothing is glossed. Nor is it in any way filled with Jesus talk. It flows from the messy overflow tempest of family mental illness. But listen to the music and you will see that Jesus hasn’t forsaken, but in its totality becomes the music of life itself. Sufjan seems a tender and bruised soul, writing, playing, and singing — both injured and being healed. Out of it flows unadorned beauty.

    This kind of music gives rise to hope, that out of the stories of life, new and realistic Christian music, and art of other sorts, will begin the birthing process, breaking through the hardened “Christian” commercialism of our culture.

    In an article in The Atlantic entitled <A HREF="http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/03/sufjan-stevens-and-a-better-way-to-write-music-about-faith/388802/&quot;>How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music Sufjan Stevens is quoted:

    Logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color,” said Stevens. “It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do.

    Somehow Carrie & Lowell seems a good way of saying goodbye to 2015, and hello to the New Year.

    • David Cornwell says

      Sorry about the formatting of the link. Apparently I missed something. But you should read it, as it is a very good piece about a subject that has been discussed on this blog more than once.

    • Thanks, David. I enjoyed that Atlantic article.

    • Well, he is Episcopalian, after all… 😉 (I wish more Americans would emulate his approach to music, insofar as focusing on *music* instead of making music and lyrics as CCM propaganda, “worship” and the like.)

  7. I was surprised and pleased by the extensive coverage given to the death of Natalie Cole on NPR news. The world is emptier today but fuller for her having passed thru. May her homecoming be blessed and a blessing..

  8. True. Essential. Hearty.

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