“I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / The bridge to nowhere.”
We are all constantly grieving. No matter our positions in life, we are almost always grieving for something. These things vary in weight, of course. A failed test. A lost wallet. A lost job. A lost house. A lost loved one.
A lost innocence.
Even if unconscious, events like these in our lives shape small parts of who we are. Our reactions or lack thereof to these events reveal peaks and valleys of our emotional landscapes, whether they are ugly, beautiful, or that odd nearly indescribable combination of both. It is difficult and a deeply personal process in sorting through these events in our lives; often the furthest thing from a straight, clear process forward, feelings of old can come back even when we think they’re long gone.
It is in this spirit and realm that celebrated singer-songwriter Sufjan Steven’s latest album, “Carrie & Lowell,” lies. Named after his mother and stepfather, the LP mostly focuses around Steven’s dealings with his mother’s death from cancer in 2012. A departure from the diverse melding of genres on his most recent album, 2010’s “Age of Adz,” Stevens returns with 11 songs and nearly only acoustic guitar and light keyboards, but to no less effect. With some of the most personal lyrics of his career, Stevens encompasses a plethora of the conflicting feelings grief and guilt bring without flinching, and in doing so paints the portrait of the artist as just a human like you and me.
Opener “Death with Dignity” begins with a mid-tempo plucking of an acoustic guitar as Stevens coos, barely above a whisper, “Spirit of my silence I can hear you / But I’m afraid to be near you / And I don’t know where to begin / And I don’t know where to begin.” The track starts at the beginning of his grieving process, as he is lost for what he is supposed to feel. He continually questions where to begin and some of the only things he knows is that he wants to be near his mother, and that he also forgives her. The fact that she left his family when he was a child colors many of his remembrances and grief for her in unexpected ways.
“Should Have Known Better,” lead single and one of the album highlights, has a similar mid-tempo plucking, accompanied throughout by lush choral ohhhs and ahhhs. The song narrates some of Steven’s memories of visiting his mother in Oregon as a child, as well as the odd, empty feelings left behind by the death of someone you had mixed feelings about but still loved. A tempo change, led by a simultaneously wistful and cheerful keyboard line, leaves the song not completely devoid of happiness, and carries an air of hope in the face of death and grief.
“Fourth of July,” deftly portrays a conversation between Stevens and his mother in which he repeatedly realizes “We’re all gonna die,” while “The Only Thing” deals with suicidal thoughts in the wake of his depression, and “No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross,” confronts his relationship with God and his doubts as he grieves. All find a central meaning, however, in using the perspective of one man dealing with so many varied and conflicting feelings — something that happens to the best of us, but we are often not willing to admit.
A criticism that some may have, and with validity, of this album is that many of the songs follow a similar structure with similar instrumentation used throughout. Though this may be true, the beauty of the lush, if minimal, baroque atmospherics of the record serve mostly in its favor, as Stevens is able to deliver the story of his inner thoughts and conflicts in the most direct way of his career thus far.
Grief, at its worst, is one of the most painful things we can endure. Grief is also necessary to the healing process. Stevens is fully, painfully aware of this on “Carrie & Lowell,” and allows us a window into his grieving process. It is equal parts nostalgic, bitter, joyful, doubting and more, and takes no shortcuts in going around these feelings. Though he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, Stevens does one of the most important things an artist can do — be genuine and honest in one’s expression of their art. “Lord, touch me with lightning,” he sings as the last lyric on the last song, “Blue Buckets of Gold.” Stevens didn’t just want to make this album — this is one he needed to make.
Rating: 4.25 stars