There are times in life that are confusing and alienating — and only years later do the proper words come to adequately describe them. This manifests in Sufjan Stevens’ seventh studio album, “Carrie and Lowell,” named after his mother and stepfather.
Every corner of the album is personal — from the vintage photo serving as the album cover, to the private, honest lyrics and Stevens’ at-home recording. Nothing comes in excess here, and each song is stripped down to let the vocal emphasis of the production shine.
At first, the lyrical honesty in Stevens’ double-tracked stereo vocals is dizzying. It’s not often an artist delivers such brutal honesty throughout a whole album, and the short 44 minutes of “Carrie and Lowell” is saturated with it. This is not a show of technical prowess. Instead, it is a reconfiguration of what it means to make music.
Beyoncé can belt up and down scales, Prince can play more than 20 instruments and Shakira can dance. Sounds, fashion, video, choreography dazzle modern music consumers, and this has become the norm. But Stevens eschews all glamour and instead uses only his simple guitar, piano and subtle atmospheric synth to deliver the core of music — poetry and melody — without any extras.
The album begins as a cry out to his mother, a drug-addicted woman who appeared only sporadically throughout Stevens’ life and died in 2012. “I forgive you mother, I can hear you / and I long to be near you / but every road leads to an end,” Stevens sings on the first track.
This introduces an album that is melancholy, recounting the bittersweet haze of Stevens’ youth. Singsong rhyming and masterful allusion recount the artist’s childhood in staggering detail. The holy and sacred collide throughout the album, especially in “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” painting a perfect picture of the spiritual confusion that death often inspires.
The album falls short in variety, with songs often hovering around the same vocal range and musical key. Vocal harmony is sparse in the album, with most songs featuring layered recordings Stevens’ voice singing the same parts in unison. Only one track dares to venture into a triple meter, and the same track is the only song that peels off the double-track.
Given this, the album risks repetition. But at a slim 44 minutes, the narrow vision is forgivable and can be better seen as a meditation.
For those who want a glimpse into the somber heart of Stevens, this album will deliver an authenticity that any fan will treasure. But for those who are looking for the upbeat tunes of Stevens’ past repertoire, this somber study of emotion might only shine in the subdued mood of a quiet car ride one rainy afternoon.