The first word that pops into my head as I listen to Carrie & Lowell, the seventh studio album from Detroit-born musician Sufjan Stevens, is “calming.” Each track is infused with a silky-smooth and relaxingly ethereal beauty. This, coupled with the tangible somberness of every song, is what makes Carrie & Lowell so moving, and so calming.
The miserable aura of the album is no mistake. The songs are about Mr. Stevens’s mother, Carrie, who passed away in 2012. The album’s title comes from the names of both his mother and his stepfather.
As one would expect, many of the songs focus on very somber and heavy topics, death and sadness being the most prevalent. The level of emotion in both the writing and performance of every track is like a haymaker directly to the heart. One of the best examples of this is the second half of the second track, “Should Have Known Better.” Eschewing the solemn acoustic guitar that features heavily in every song, Mr. Stevens creates an aural landscape from layered synthesizer melodies and gentle percussion. Each verse brings with it a new sonic component that makes the harmony between the melodies more and more complicated, while using reverb on the vocals and a quarter note tambourine rhythm to preserve an “airy” feeling in the song.
But ironically, the greatest strength of Carrie & Lowell is also its kryptonite. If you want something upbeat that’ll put a smile on your face, you’re barking up the wrong album. These songs are serious, they’re sad, and they’re chillingly lovely. And while that does mean they’re not for everyone, folks who dig somber songs will most likely fall in love with Carrie & Lowell. From the opening bars of “Death with Dignity” to the closing notes of “Blue Bucket of Gold,” Mr. Stevens engulfs listeners in a sobering calm that’s as beautiful as it is upsetting.
While listening to Carrie & Lowell, I was reminded of a favorite quote from a former piano teacher of mine. He would often quote Percy Bysshe Shelley, saying, “Our sweetest songs are those of saddest thought.” And if any album were to prove Mr. Shelley right, it’d be Carrie & Lowell. Mr. Stevens has created an album of songs both sweet and sad; anyone who’s ready to be rendered miserable will find that Carrie & Lowell exudes an upsetting beauty that is both incredibly powerful and deeply moving.
*Image belongs to Asthmatic Kitty