The spectre of a troubled childhood hangs over Sufjan Stevens’ seventh studio album — his first foray into conventional songwriting since 2005’s Illinois.
Recorded following the death of his mother — the ‘Carrie’ of the title — the LP is a meditation on grief but also a rumination on Stevens’s peripatetic upbringing, which saw him passed among inlaws while his mother struggled with alcoholism (‘Lowell’ is Stevens’s stepfather, with whom he maintains a cordial relationship).
If these sound like the ingredients for a singularly downbeat record, well that is what Carrie & Lowell often amounts to. At it most searing , it approaches unlistenable.
On the album’s centerpiece, ‘Fourth Of July’, Stevens revisits a death-bed conversation with his mother: with her slipping away he finds a twisted comfort in the refrain “We’re all gonna die”, cooing the words as a banjo tinkles in the background. It’s a gorgeously wistful moment — but terribly haunting too.
There are flashes of humour, though they can be easily missed. Endlessly earnest, Stevens has reverted to the musical blueprint of his early records: banjo, acoustic guitar, creeping piano (no drums or synthesisers).
This has the effect of freighting even his throwaway thoughts with a bottomless melancholy, so that when he recounts his mother abandoning him at the video store aged “three, or maybe four”, it’s hard to tell if this is a bleak joke or a chilling family anecdote dragged from the closet.
Ultimately, Carrie & Lowell raises the question of how personal art can become before it is rendered inappropriate for mass consumption. It’s one thing bearing witness as a songwriter yowls about his or her big broken heart.
To hear a performer dissect their childhood in the sort of forensic detail Stevens goes into here is another matter entirely. This is a beautiful album, containing some of Stevens’s strongest ever writing. But good luck making it all the way through without recourse to a Kleenex or a shoulder on which to sob.
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