In 1950, amid a long term battle with depression and worldly disillusionment, Italian writer and poet Cesare Pavese committed suicide—at the age of forty-two—by an overdose of barbiturates. The circumstances of his suicide, which took place in a small hotel room in Turin, mimic the last scene of Among Women Only, his penultimate book. Shortly before his death, he methodically destroyed all his private papers, and leaving virtually nothing behind. His colleagues, shocked and bewildered, sought an explanation for his untimely passing. The truth was only revealed when Pavese’s personal diaries (spanning from the years 1935 to 1950) were brought to light some eleven years after his death. For the diaries, they revealed a tormented man struggling to achieve an elusive emotional maturity consistent with a poet’s sensibility. In addition, Cesare Pavese’s diaries disclosed the parallels between his works’ protagonists and personal mythology. The typical effort of a Pavese hero is clarity; the typical problem is that of severe lapse in communication. It all became abundantly clear that his literary work wasn’t simply his literary work; it was his life.
Sure the denoted may come across as nothing more than fluff and stuff, but frankly it does raise the question: Why do we read an artist’s journal? Why do we become so invested in something so deeply and obviously experiential? Because it illuminates their work? Often it does not, leading only to frustration and a dead end. More likely, it is simply because of the pure rawness of the journal form. Here we read the artist in the first person; we face the ego behind the masks of ego in the artist’s work. In the curious case of one Cesare Pavese, no degree of intimacy in a novel can possibly supply this, even when he incessantly writes in the first person or uses a third person narrative which is merely there to transparently point to himself. In many ways, a diary or journal grants us uninterrupted access into the workshop of the artist’s soul. To quote Susan Sontag, who writes of the artist as “the exemplary sufferer”, it is “because he has found both the deepest level of suffering and also a professional means to sublimate his suffering.”
Enter 39-year-old American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, who chose the title of his seventh full-length studio album Carrie & Lowell after the recent loss of his mother, Carrie, and her five year marriage to Lowell Brams, which according to Stevens himself was the apex of contentment in a life struck by unrelenting hardship. Carrie—who was bipolar, suffered from depression, schizophrenia, and battled with drugs and substance abuse—impetuously left the family when Stevens was only a year-old. Despite having no pertinent recollection of Carrie as a matriarchal figure in the family, Stevens spent three summers, between the ripe ages of five to eight, in Oregon with her and Lowell. In a way, Carrie & Lowell serves as a stark, albeit necessary, reminder that Sufjan Stevens’ career highlights—when his art is truly devastating—arise from emotional tripwires. The violent familial portrait, “Drawn to the Blood”, requires only a prickly bed of guitar chords and an elementary lyric scheme to have your heart circling its wagons.
Mulling over the illustrious fifteen year musical career of one Sufjan Stevens, it’s easy to get lost in all of the shuffle and madness. Stevens has spent much of those fifteen years feverishly oscillating between playful yet dizzying excesses and self-conscious incoherence. We’ve all gotten so acquainted with Stevens assuming the proverbial role of “the Mad Bandleader” that we are quick to forget just how sober and auburn he becomes with just a guitar in his hands. When he’s not busy penning songs about UFOs, zombies and Abraham Lincln, obsessing over Christmas, or being overshadowed by ostensible gimmicks, his simple, splendid folk renditions provide the strongest argument for Stevens as “the Relevant Folk Artist”. And the music provided on his latest effort, Carrie & Lowell regains the refreshingly humble tone it has severely lacked since Seven Swans over a decade ago. Despite the critical acclaim and frenzied fanfare Stevens has generated over the years by way of his ambitious musical projects (Illinois, The Age of Adz) and various endeavors (“The Fifty States Project”, multimedia work, the wordless documentary accompanied by live music entitled Round-Up), he has undoubtedly been overextending himself on cluttered compositions and uptempo pop structures, while his strength always remains nervy balladry.
Thankfully, as a songwriter on Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens is no longer opting to hide behind surreal vignettes about Baby Jesus, zoo animals, the apocalypse via schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—pouring his heart and soul into each one of album’s eleven tracks—while poignantly exploring love, loss, and subsequently the fate of his very own existence. Gone are the cutesy song titles and conceptual obsessions that permeated his back catalog, abandoned are the quirky trademarks he has indiscriminately established, and detoured is the whimsical career path that he has almost inadvertently embarked upon. “With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” Stevens said in a recent in-depth sit-down interview. “It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”
Stevens’ sentiment regarding the creative process behind Carrie & Lowell brings to mind another recent folk project that tackles similarly grave subject matter in a guileless manner. Under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, Mark Kozelek was able to craft a painfully sincere and confessional album in Benji by approaching the medium with a staunch openness. Whether its singing about a second cousin who passed away in a freak accident involving an aerosol can, explicitly detailing his early sexual history, or grotesquely painting a picture of one of his father’s friends who helped his wife commit suicide Kozelek ultimately remains resolute and dedicated to the process no matter how bare-bones it is. In a way Sufjan Stevens, like Kozelek on Benji, has found his “suffering self”. As a man, he suffers; as an artist, he transforms his suffering into art. For both artists and their respective works every single moment appears to be fleeting and it is their duty as songwriters to capture them in an autobiographical sense, before they are forever lost to time or some unforeseeable circumstance.
Stevens—who still describes himself as a Christian and has a fundamental love for God—is, for the first time in his art, lifted and transcended into a saintly figure. The artist is the one who discovers the use of suffering in the economy of art, as the saints discovered the utility and necessity of suffering in the economy of salvation. The simplicity and gentleness of Carrie & Lowell as a whole becomes a metaphor for Stevens’ humble life, even in times of great frustration and uncertainty. Likewise, both Stevens and the album reach the heights of artistic, expressive excellence due to these very basic traits. Stevens and his “post-God” Christian beliefs exemplify humanity at its most humane. It is the very humanity of Stevens on Carrie & Lowell that prevents the album from declining into a state of glorified hagiography. Sufjan Stevens’ sentimentality and moral faults (which are painstakingly written all over the album) have him being more than a plaster saint. With Christianity being, from its inception, the romantic religion, Stevens carefully balances his “suffering self” with love. The lowly Stevens presented to the audience on Carrie & Lowell is a symbol of Christ’s compassion; he’s been beaten down—both figuratively and literally—and yet in spite of this innumerable suffering there exists a transcendent peace for this bruised and battered being.
Like all of the best folk music before it, the context behind the creation of Carrie & Lowell is essential. Throughout the eleven tracks presented on the album, Stevens’ relationship with Carrie and his reaction to her death are brutally on display. Given that death is a grand mystery and there is no singular human reaction to it, Stevens allots us enough time to witness each agonizing nuance; everything from regret to grief to anger. Carrie & Lowell is a side of Sufjan Stevens we have read plenty about over the years but unfortunately have rarely ever seen; so much so that when the initial shock wears off it borders on being almost too exhibitionistic while the listener feels voyeuristic in nature. But even when Stevens is certainly cautious of this critique—with his prose poem style of songwriting here reflecting the jarring immediacy of the harrowing personal experiences—he wisely leaves the journal wide open, remains earnest, and largely undeterred by the possibility of the listener feeling slightly uncomfortable. There are plenty of moments on Carrie & Lowell that come across as deleted scenes from a John Cassavetes film; with its spontaneous vérité style, thrusting us right into the living room of a dysfunctional everyday American family. Retroactively speaking, Carrie & Lowell is arguably the most turbulent family affair since HBO’s The Sopranos.
We really do get it all here. With the album packaging consisting exclusively of intimate family moments the listener virtually steps into Sufjan Stevens’ world during those poignant summers in Oregon. The cover photograph is of the titular Carrie and Lowell. The inner sleeve depicts an adolescent Stevens eating a banana at the breakfast table. The back cover is of Carrie quietly knitting in a bedroom as photographed by Lowell (he’s also present, taking the photo in the corner of the mirror). The lyric sheet is shuffled—all scattered about at random—as if to illustrate a helpless individual’s frantic need to piece together a puzzle that’ll magically have all of the answers to life’s most vexing quandaries. Stevens has made a conscious decision not to shy away from his bereavement—existing in what appears to be naïve vulnerability—because anything else would just have been “fake”. The title track is a direct narrative about the short-lived couple: “Carrie and Lowell/ Such a long time ago/ Like a dead horse/ Meadowlark drive your arrow”. Elsewhere, Stevens frequently refers to drug use and uses phrases that might have described Carrie, such on the achingly beautiful closing verse of “Death With Dignity”: “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/ And I long to be near you/ But every road leads to an end”.
The lead single from the album, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, is the sound of a man in search for a way to connect with his now-deceased mother as he begins to embark on a path of self-destructive tendencies akin to her own, metaphorically culminating in Carrie dragging Stevens to hell with her. The track finds Sufjan Stevens diving head first into the perpetual pit of pill popping (“I search for the capsule I lost”), alcohol abuse and promiscuity (“Like a champion/ Get drunk to get laid”), and potentially even succumbing to heroin addiction (“I’m chasing the dragon too far”). Stark, skeletal, fragmentary, Stevens wastes no time getting into the nitty gritty of his personal life. There are glimpses of a child (who is “three, maybe four”) being left at the video store, a fragile arm being broken, a child innocently pulling on an adult’s shirt, guilt-ridden masturbation, a dead body being wrapped in cloth, self-harm, and the beauty of birth. Each track on Carrie & Lowell unfolds faster than the last and by the sixth track Stevens is already burying the mother we only just met.
Even though you’d be hard-pressed to find a Sufjan Stevens superfan who is willing to put Illinois second to anything, Carrie & Lowell is an album that feels like a true testament to Stevens’ magnetic artistry. It’s an album that reeks of classic on all levels: scene is set, tone established, problem arisen, grappled, fought (nearly lost) and eventually—joyously—overcome. Sequencing isn’t everything of course, but it’s made all the more powerful by the strength of the material within. Often times, Stevens’ musical output bluntly flirted with the idea of self-deification and mythologizing without much in the way of the mise–en–scène. Stevens’ art was inching closer to the New Testament tradition, detached to the point of potential nonexistence. On 2010’s bloated The Age of Adz, Stevens proved to be less of a presence than ever, and his subject matter came across as utterly lifeless and anemic enough to skirt self-parody. On Carrie & Lowell, however, Stevens is able to find that sweet spot so many artists take a lifetime to discover—finally being able to be taken seriously as both an imparter of wisdom and talented entertainer. But strangely enough, Carrie & Lowell is as celebratory, emotionally rich and life-affirming as a good funeral should be, but never is. Of course, this isn’t the end, but merely the beginning of a brand new chapter in life.