You can’t go back. Sufjan Stevens wrestles with that fact throughout Carrie & Lowell, his first proper full-length album since 2010’s primal digital freakout The Age Of Adz. Stevens’ mother — Carrie, from the album title — died in December 2012 after a troubled life that found her battling substance abuse and schizophrenia and leaving her family behind in Michigan when he was just one year old. These 11 spare, celestial folk songs are his public reckoning with her death — the sound of a wounded manchild grasping for a connection that’s never coming back and was maybe never there to begin with. It’s an incredibly beautiful, simple document of impossibly ugly, complex feelings.
As a child, Stevens did spend a few summers out in Oregon with Carrie and her new husband, Lowell, and his recollections of those trips pop up in flashbacks throughout the album: little Sufjan climbing on his mother’s bed to trace her shadow with his shoe; Carrie leaving her kids behind at the video store; Sufjan finding needed parental attention from a swim instructor who couldn’t even pronounce his name. These one- or two-line vignettes are powerfully memorable, but the lyrics that pierce me the most from Carrie & Lowell are the questions. “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” Stevens wonders aloud. “How did this happen?” he utters in God’s general direction. “What did I do to deserve this?” The lines addressed toward Carrie are even more accusatory: “Did you know me at all?” and “Can we be friends?” and, crushingly, “Why don’t you love me?”
The one that looms largest for me is “How do I live with your ghost?” Culled from “The Only Thing,” it could work as a thesis for Carrie & Lowell, nodding both at Stevens’ struggle to pick up the pieces and his continuing desire for intimacy. The rest of the song is similarly instructive: “Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I sing returns to you somehow/ Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow.” Stevens barely knew his mom, and now that she’s gone, his longing to be close to her has only intensified. “Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me,” he told Pitchfork. “I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable.” The whole album is haunted by that feeling of missed opportunity, of loss, of desperately trying to unlock some secret code that will redeem his tainted memories. Again and again, he asserts his desire to be close to her. Again and again, he despairs that he can’t.
The Christian faith that has always moved between the background and foreground of Stevens’ music continues to do so here. “How, God of Elijah?” he asks on “Drawn To The Blood,” nodding to a biblical character who saw God come through in his own moment of weakness and doubt. On “John My Beloved” Stevens whispers, “Lord, hear my prayer” before proclaiming, “There’s only a shadow of me/ In a manner of speaking I’m dead.” Lead single “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” echoes that hopeless sentiment; having found solace in neither drugs, sex, nor spirituality, he laments, “Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” Whereas Seven Swans, Stevens’ most explicitly Christian record, hearkened back to the Psalms at their most joyful and peaceful, these are Psalms of woe with no resolution in sight. By the end of the album he’s pleading, “Lord, touch me with lightning,” and I’m not sure if he’s wishing for death or a jolt of life.
There’s never been a Sufjan Stevens record this minimal before. Even the hushed hymnal Seven Swans feels humongous in comparison. Gone are the post-rock elements that Stevens blended with singer-songwriter folk on his satisfying Michigan-Seven Swans-Illinois trifecta. Gone too are the harsh electronic beats that defined The Age Of Adz and the awkward experimentation that filled out all those Christmas EPs. We’re left with Stevens’ melodies and evocative poetry cast against barebones guitar or piano bathed in light. Often there’s an ambient coda tacked on, and closer “Blue Bucket Of Gold” goes full “Motion Picture Soundtrack” with its ethereal grand finale. There are collaborators — S. Carey, Laura Viers, Nedelle Torrisi — but you don’t really notice them. It just sounds like Stevens in a sea of ghosts, his voice heavy under the weight of his soul.
As you might have already figured out, more than any previous Stevens album, the lyrics are the star here. The music is gorgeous, but there are no grand gestures to latch onto like before, no ostentatious indie-pop epic like “Chicago” or even a show-stopping ballad like “For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti.” When flashes of unusual beauty emerge, like the flickering synth melody in “Should Have Known Better,” they feel momentous even though on previous Stevens albums they would have been swallowed up into something bigger. Carrie & Lowell was billed as a return to Stevens’ “folk roots,” and that’s true enough, but the album doesn’t circle back to his old sound any more than Stevens can circle back to his childhood. It sounds more like a memory of that style, the same elements framed in soft edges and faint tinted glow, his youth revisited with years of the perspective that comes with pain. I’m not sure he even could make something as whimsical as those old records anymore if he wanted to, and it would certainly be weird if he he did. Instead, revisiting his old fundamentals, he’s come up with a new kind of beauty. Like Jay Gatsby, he pushes into the past, but life inevitably carries him forward, with or without resolution.
Carrie & Lowell is out 3/31 on Asthmatic Kitty. Stream it below.