Ten years ago, we thought Sufjan Stevens belonged to all of us.
When he produced two state-themed albums, Michigan and Illinois, and announced a career plan to make an album for each of the remaining forty-eight states, we thought he would be our Walt Whitman. He would turn his unique musical and literary gifts over to the people, to the work of documenting and capturing the essence of the America of our time. We all kind of expected he would show up in our hometowns someday, and write a tune as incisive and provocative as the ones he wrote for places like Ypsilanti, MI and Jacksonville, IL. Sandwiched between the releases of those two albums, however, was the intensely personal, raw, and emotive Seven Swans, which has proved to be a much more accurate prelude to the direction his work has taken since.[i]
His new record, Carrie and Lowell, is of the introspective and confessional variety, dealing primarily with the songwriter’s process of coping with his mother’s death in 2012. Stevens told Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork that he had set out to confront the reality of his experience head-on, without the imaginative and referential constructs, or grandiose sound experiments, that were a huge part of his earlier work:
With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe… 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.
And yet, Stevens’ fascination with biblical imagery, with literature and pop culture, and his remarkably detailed sense of place, seem to be part and parcel of his life. Art infuses his thoughts and feelings, and informs his efforts to authentically communicate them. While Carrie and Lowell may be one of Stevens’ more bare and artless recordings in terms of musical composition, it sustains a complex web of lyrical allusions and symbols. Carrie and Lowell reveals the inner world, the private theology, of a person who is wrestling with depression and grief after the loss of a loved one. It is an attempt to find the spark that animates life within the ever-encroaching darkness of death. It is also his Oregon album, though it is not an album about Oregon.
The opening track, “Death with Dignity[ii],” presents many of the themes that shape the record. We know that Stevens is a Christian, and that a lot of his music surrounds a relationship with God and Jesus that is intensely personal.[iii] When he begins Carrie and Lowell with the line “Spirit of my silence I can hear you/But I’m afraid to be near you/And I don’t know where to begin,” I take it as an expression of an inner push and pull, drawing him to the comfort of his faith in his time of need, but also urging him to run away from that comfort toward the fear and sadness surrounding his mother’s death.[iv] If grief is a process, then it has an end goal – getting over it. But is that human nature? Or do we prefer to dwell on it? Isn’t that one of the reasons why we have created religions and art, because of our fascination with our mortality? Stevens searches through the details of his limited memories of his mother for an answer, finds the inevitability of death, and begins to question his own, very human tendency to mythologize his experiences: “Amethyst and flowers on the table/Is it real or a fable?/Well I suppose a friend is a friend/And we all know how this will end.”
Like Aquinas, Stevens styles the presence of the divine as a light permeating the darkness of his own psychology. The light of God offers relief, love, inspiration – but at times it can also feel oppressive, overbearing, judgmental. In the fourth verse of “Death with Dignity”:
Chimney swift that finds me, be my keeper
Silhouette of the cedar
What is that song you sing for the dead?
What is that song you sing for the dead?
I see the signal searchlight strike me in the window of my room
Well I got nothing to prove
Well I got nothing to prove
Birds in Stevens’ work have often been used as potent symbols, omens, or representations of some sort of spiritual or philosophical force. Here he mentions the chimney swift to allude to the poet Allen Ginsberg, whose work he references throughout the album.[v] He asks, “What is that song you sing for the dead?” The answer is Kaddish, the Jewish prayer read by mourners at a funeral, and the title of Ginsberg’s masterpiece, about the death of the poet’s own mother. Like Stevens, Ginsberg’s mother suffered from psychotic symptoms and had a complex relationship with her son. As Sufjan contemplates memories of his mother’s illness, and the finality of death, the “signal searchlight” of his faith shines in his window, and he defiantly declares that he has “nothing to prove.”
After confronting the religious and artistic implications of death, the songwriter finds himself left with the simple, raw emotions he held toward his mother in his childhood: “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you.” He echoes the “I can hear” from the first line, because it is his feelings for his mother he can really hear in his moment of grief, not the peace and silence of God. He remembers being with his mother and reading picture books as a kid: “Your apparition passes through me/in the willows/and five red hens.”[vi] But as Stevens will do time and time again throughout the record, he winds up facing the hard stop of death head-on, singing, “All roads lead to an end,” and “You’ll never see us again.” The song finishes with the harmonies of several voices over a steel guitar, a sound that is more eerie and nostalgic than angelic.
Track two, “Should Have Known Better,” is one of my favorite songs on the album, with a lilting melody that feeds into a brief, powerful instrumental outro. The lyrics again reference Ginsberg, and revolve around Stevens’ internal tug of war between the gloom of remembering his mother and the divine light ever-present in his environment, trying to pierce his malaise:
I should have known better
To see what I could see
My black shroud
Holding down my feelings
A pillar for my enemies
I should have wrote a letter
And grieve what I happen to grieve
My black shroud
I never trust my feelings
I waited for the remedy
“Black Shroud” is another poem by Ginsberg, in which he describes a dream of a sublimated memory of his mother in the midst of a delusional episode. Ginsberg’s mother was eventually subjected to electro-shock therapy and lobotomized.[vii] In the poem, the son has taken on the blame for his mother’s death, he dreams that he realized her suffering as a child and decapitated her to save her from what was to come:
Some electric current flowing up her spine tortured her,
Foot to scalp unbearable, some professional advice
Required quick action, I took her wrists, and held her
Bound to the sink, beheading her silently with swift
Dispatch, one gesture…[viii]
Stevens sees himself “holding down [his] feelings,” the same way Ginsberg had prior to the dream, using a “shroud” of artistic and mythological imagery to cope with the emotions he could not confront as a child. The metaphor of this type of imagery as a cloth or veil that dilutes both the darkness of his grief and the brightness of God’s love is repeated throughout the album. He wishes he could deal with his emotions head-on, but he requires a “remedy,” in the form of artifice or, as we will see later in the song, antidepressant medication.
Details of his experiences with his mother in Oregon intrude on the song lyrically the same way the memories intrude on Stevens’ psychology: “When I was three/Three maybe four/She left us at that video store,” and “When I was three/And free to explore/I saw her face on the back of the door.” He finds himself looking toward these memories for relief from his depression, the same way he has utilized religion, art, and media throughout his life: “Be my rest/Be my fantasy.” His reference to “The bridge to nowhere… Cantilever bridge,” is likely to Oregon’s iconic “Bridge of the Gods,” which spans the Columbia River going north to Washington.
As the song evolves, a series of electronic keyboard notes and backing vocals push the pace and exhort Stevens, “Don’t back down” — to face the emotions he is feeling. He teeters between the light present in his young niece (“My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination”), and the temptation to dull that experience and drift back toward memories of his mother (“I’m a fool in the fetter/Rose of Aaron’s beard/Where you can reach me.”) “A fool in the fetter” is a biblical reference, to a line in Proverbs: “He goes after her straightaway, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or a fool goes to the stocks;” Stevens is drawn toward his painful memories of his mother. “Rose of Aaron’s beard” is an amalgam of “Rose of Sharon” and “Aaron’s Beard,” two more biblical allusions, and the two names for St. John’s Wort, a supplement used for its antidepressant qualities. The final verse loops back around to the light he sees in a child, who presumably is receiving the kind of stability and love he and his siblings wanted so badly from their mother.
The third tune is “All of Me Wants All of You,” another eerie-sounding exploration of a childhood memory of Oregon that intrudes on the singer’s present-day life. At the start of the song, Stevens may be once again reflecting Ginsberg, as he sets the scene of he and a disinterested lover sharing a bed:
Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used
Here Sufjan is in the company of partner with whom he has a shallow and purely sexual connection. He can’t talk about his grief with this person, and can’t even count on them to “celebrate” him sexually, leaving Stevens to “beat” off while they play with their phone. I take the peculiar use of the name “Manelich” as a homonym for “man I lick;” Stevens, like Ginsberg, brings a glimpse of homoeroticism into his poetry of mourning.
Without the distraction of sex, his mind drifts back to his mother. “Found myself on Spencer’s Butte” is a reference to the highest point in Oregon, just outside Eugene, its summit offers panoramic views of the landscape and city where he stayed briefly with his mother and stepfather as a kid. In these lyrics, he faces his feelings of abandonment and neglect, juxtaposed with his deep desire to share love and connection with his mother:
Found myself on Spencer’s Butte
Traced your shadow with my shoe
Empty outline changed my view
Now all of me thinks less of you
On the sheet I see your horizon
All of me pressed into you
But in this light you look like Poseidon
I’m just a ghost you walk right through
Saw myself on Spencer’s Butte (All of me wants all of you)
Landscape changed my point of view (All of me wants all of you)
Stevens remembers the absence of his mother, her “shadow,” an “empty outline,” and the distance between them, “your horizon.” Understandably, thinking back as an adult, he “thinks less” of her for running from the responsibility of parenting he and his siblings. From a higher vantage, she looks morally ambiguous, like the Greek god Poseidon, who ruled the murky waters between the earth and the underworld. The line, “All of me wants all of you” perfectly explains the greedy kind of love a child holds for its mother, a kind of love that was never requited for Sufjan.
Next, “Drawn to the Blood,” a song powerful because of the desperation and emotion of Stevens’ vocal. He calls on bird imagery (“The flight of a one-winged dove”) and old testament references (“Delilah, avenge my grief,” and “God of Elijah”) to express the agony of someone in the doldrums of depression. He also makes mention of the Chinese zodiac, rabbits and dragons, a theme that had heavily informed some of his earlier work.[ix] When he pleads, “For my prayer has always been love/What did I do to deserve this?” I can feel him struggling with the injustice of emotional pain. Once again like Ginsberg, he wonders if his mother’s “blood” has somehow transmitted this senseless anguish into her son.
In “Eugene,” he futher explores his childhood memories of Oregon, the hopelessness of his sadness, and the impossibility of fulfilling his desire for closeness with his mother. He places himself in Emerald Park for swimming lessons[x], desperate for his mother’s attention, tugging on her sleeve and causing her to knock over an ashtray. “I just want to be near you,” he repeats, with all the sorrow of an instinctual urge that he was never able to really actualize.
The fulcrum of Carrie and Lowell is “Fourth of July,” a heartbreaking ballad in which Stevens’ narrates an imagined call-and-response conversation between he and his mom. He begins speaking to her about the night she died: “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?/Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?” Here the light in the darkness is independence day fireworks, representing the spark of the soul that animates life. Stevens jumps into falsetto as his mother replies:
Well you do enough talk
My little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?
Or the Fourth of July?
We’re all gonna die
This voice seems to be less Sufjan’s real mother, and more his fantasy of what she may have been, if not for her mental illness. The epitet “my little hawk” is the kind of sweet nothing I can imagine a motherless child would want whispered to him. He changes the bird each verse, to “dove,” or “loon,” maybe just to rhyme, maybe to represent some quality his mother recognizes in him. “The Tillamook burn” is a reference to the horribly destructive wildfires that destroyed huge portions of old growth forrests on the Oregon coast in the 1930s and 1940s. “The Fourth of July” takes on added significance when considered in regard to the Oregon Trail – settlers would need to reach Independence Rock by that date or risk dying in the mountain snow further along. Both events speak to the awesome destructive power of nature, and the risk of death for those who toy with it.
As the son continues to weep at the deathbed of his mother, replying with his own nonsense pet names: “My firefly,” and “My little Versailles.” From beyond, she offers him perspective, saying, “Why do you cry?/Make the most of your life, while it is rife/While it is light.” But Stevens finds himself less than ready to accept this comfort from the mother of his dreams, as he ends the song by repeating “We’re all gonna die,” with increasing forboding and weight.
“The Only Thing” is the songwriter hitting bottom, contemplating suicide and self-harm as his depression lingers on. The tone of the song, quiant and childlike, with a cheerful melody, belies the horrors of it’s meaning. He retreats again to the familarity of mythology, with each verse containing “signs and wonders.” He sings about Medusa’s head (an image Ginsberg also uses in “Black Shroud”), perhaps hoping to conquer his mother’s memory and find redempton: “Perseus aligned with the skull/Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all.” The all white Pegusus emerging from the decapitated head, and the intentional use of the term “alight,” make this another case of Stevens wrestling with light and darkness. In the next verse, he sings: “Daniel’s message; blood of the moon on us all,” a reference to two biblical omens of death and destruction.[xi]
The signs of doom are lost on the grieving Stevens: “Do I care if I survive this?/Bury the dead where they’re found/In a veil of great surprises/I wonder did you love me at all?” His mind just keeps cycling back to the relationship he did not have with his mother:
Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
The album’s title track is up next, with a pitter-pattering beat and layered, echoing vocals over synthesized tones, these feel like the happy times of Stevens’ life with his mother, Carrie. She married his stepfather, Lowell Brams, when Sufjan was in elementary school. He told his friend Dave Eggers about the experience of going to visit the couple for a summer in Oregon. Eggers writes:
Eventually Carrie remarried, too – to a man Lowell Brams, and it was through Lowell, because of Lowell, that Carrie rekindled a strained, desultory relationship with her children. Lowell was determined to arrange visits and phone calls, and he took a special interest in Sufjan. There was no music in the home Stevens shared with his father and stepmom – no records, no stereo – but Lowell, an amateur musician and avid record collector, introduced Stevens to Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Judee Sill, Nick Drake, and Mike Oldfield. He visited Stevens throughout his childhood and through high school, sending him mix tapes, and when Stevens formed his own bands at Hope College, Lowell would be in the audience, offering uncritical and unequivocal support.
Eventually, Lowell[xii] would partner with Sufjan and his friends to found Asthmatic Kitty records, and produce some of his recordings. The two men’s long and fruitful partnership colors his memories of his mother’s marriage to Brams positively. He remembers a day trip: “Under the pear tree/Shadows and light conspiring/Covered bridge, I scream/Cottage Grove shade invite me.”[xiii] He characterizes the time as a mashup of the excitement of Carrie and Lowell’s new love and the anxiety of her schizophrenia hovering over the relationship:
Season of hope (after the flood)
Valentine, spurn my sorrow
Head on the floorboards (covered in blood)
Drunk as a horsefly
Climb on the mattress pad
Twist my arm
Stevens makes reference to “Valentine” and “meadowlark drive your arrow” in the song, making the connection between the iconography of Cupid, St. Valentine, and Jesus (the Meadowlark is a frequent symbol of Christ in art and literature). The characters evoke a connection between fleeting romantic love and tragic death, and Carrie’s severed head appears again, bleeding the blood that also threatens the songwriter’s sanity. He represents his anxiety over Carrie ruining the relationship with Lowell (and with her children), with a memory of his mother jumping on the bed to wrestle with him and twisting his arm. That tension builds through the song. He evokes Poseidon a second time to represent Carrie: “Lord of the ancient waters/Carrie surprised me/Erebus on my back.” In Greek myth, Erebus is the darkness that lies between Earth and Hades. The song, like Carrie and Lowell’s marriage, ends with a break:
Holding your hands with Opie
Like a dead horse
(Shall we ascend)
Flight of the mayfly
Ephemera on my back
She breaks my arm
“Opie” is Stevens’ childhood friend who died in a car wreck,[xiv] and here marks Carrie as destined for a similarly tragic fate. Her life, and her happy times with Lowell and the kids, are as ephemeral as the life of the mayfly, which is born and dies in a single day. The tension of the inevitable is finally released in the last line, when the boy’s arm snaps.
The ninth song, “John My Beloved,” is mysterious and difficult to interpret. I fuses imagery that could be perceived as homoerotic (“I’m holding my breath/My tongue on your chest”) and that which seems devout (“Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me/From fossils that fall on my head”). I don’t believe Stevens is juxtaposing or creating a dichotomy here, I think he is finding his love of Jesus present within the physical attraction he holds for his lover. The “fossils” he refers to are the mythical and literary images he utilizes in his lyrics. He addresses his God: “Beloved of John, I get it all wrong/I read you for some kind of poem/Covered in lines, the fossils I find/Have they no life of their own?” Jesus is the physical incarnation of God, and Stevens finds his presence within those he loves in the physical world.
The metaphor continues into “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”[xv]:
Now that I fell into your arms
My only lover, give out to give in
I search for the capsule I lost
Drag me to hell in the valley of the dead
Like my mother, give wings to a stone
It’s only the shadow of the cross
I slept on my back, in the shade of the meadowlark
Like a champion, get drunk to get laid
I take one more hit when you depart
“Now that I fell into your arms” casts the entire album into a narrative of Stevens being pulled away from the light of God by the shock of his mother’s death, and slowly fighting his way back to his “only lover.” The “capsule” holds what may be an intentionally ambiguous meaning, it could be a time capsule of memories, or a pill, an antidepressant. Sufjan is now seeing his sorrow from a safer distance, as “only the shadow of the cross.” The cross represents for him death as an act of redemption, as the “shade of the meadowlark,” a dark spot within life, rather than an all-consuming darkness. Here we see sex, medication, perhaps other drugs (“blood on that blade,” “inhaling fire,” “Casper the ghost” could all be references to narcotics), as the last “shroud” the singer will try to use to dull his pain. He knows though, that he is “chasing the dragon too far.” And there really is “no shade in the shadow of the cross” – the light will find him anywhere and everywhere.
The final song on Carrie and Lowell is “Blue Bucket of Gold,” a lyrically brief piece that stands out musically because of it’s powerful one minute outro, featuring haunting synth tones and Stevens’ howling vocalizations.[xvi] The title, and first line, is a reference to the “lost blue bucket mine,” a legendary Oregon folktale that spawned a minor gold rush near the John Day River in 1845[xvii]. The source of the gold was never found. I believe this allusion represents Stevens’ acceptance that the two payoffs he has been searching for in the wake of his mother’s death – a feeling of love and closeness to her, and a feeling of comfort and peace in the light of God, will never be attained:
My blue bucket of gold
Friend, why don’t you love me?
Once the myth has been told
The lens deforms it as lightning
The “friend” Stevens refers to is both his mother and God. He has attempted to construct mythologies for both, but in doing so finds that his own ability to perceive, his “lens,” is inadequite to interpret the narrative he creates, rather it “deforms it as lightning,” as a sudden spark to drive away the darkness inherent in his mind.
Search for things to extol
Friend, the fables delight me
My blue bucket of gold
Lord, touch me with lightning
He puts himself in the place of those who sought after the lost gold mine. The pointless fantasies he creates, the meanings he attaches to the mundane, are what keeps him going in life. Frivolous perhaps, but they remain the best way he knows to get in touch with the light of the divine.
Raise your right hand
Tell me you want me in your life
Or raise your red flag
Just when I want you in my life
The chorus speaks to the two objects of his desire – his mother and God. He asks his mother to “raise her right hand,” as in a pledge of truth, and tell him she wants him. He simplfies his emotions toward her to their most elemental, most child-like. A “red flag[xviii]” is a sign of caution, a signal that a situation shouldn’t be rushed into. Sufjan Stevens doesn’t find closure here. He simply accepts that the push and pull he has dealt with throughout the album is going to be a permanent feature of these two relationships.
Carrie and Lowell is an unfiltered divulgence of the inner life of one of the the most singular artists currently creating music. It is unabashedly depressing, intense, and repetitive. Few would have the courage to bare their souls this openly, and even fewer possess the skill to transmit a horrowing reality with so much emotional accuracy. Sufjan Stevens has created a record about darkness, and light, and Oregon. He’s told us more about himself than we ever really thought we’d know about such an enigmatic figure.
Maybe Sufjan Stevens belongs to all of us after all.
Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell tour will be travelling the western U.S. through August, then heading over to Europe in the fall.
[i] He finally admitted in 2009 he no longer intended to complete the “Fifty States Project,” if he really ever had intended to attempt it at all.
[ii] Here Stevens begins his Oregon references. The state’s 1994 “Death with Dignity Act” was a highly controversial bill that allowed for some forms of physician-assisted suicide.
[v] Ginsberg would frequently read, or perform as a song, the poem “The Chimney Sweeper” by the romantic British poet William Blake. The poem, like Carrie and Lowell, is about a man dealing with the death of his mother.
[vi] I am interpreting this line as a reference to The Wind in the Willows, and The Little Red Hen.
[viii] From Ginsberg, Allen “Black Shroud,” White Shroud. New York: Harper and Row, 1986 (p. 69)
[x] Stevens remembers the swimming teacher being unable to pronounce his name, and “calling [him] ‘Subaru.’” The story goes that he received his unusual name from Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, the founder of the pseudo-religious organization Subud, which his mother and father were associated with around the time he was born. Read more about Subud here.
[xv] I found this song to be an interesting choice as the first single. It is one of the most straightforward, bare, and lyrically perplexing songs in the group. Not exactly super accessible.
[xvi] See my review of Stevens’ concert in Albany, NY last month here. He performs “Blue Bucket of Gold” as the finale of his live shows on the Carrie and Lowell tour, and he and his band erupt into lengthy, improvised sound experiments at the end of the song.