Carrie & Lowell is the seventh studio LP by American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens, released on March 31, 2015. The album is autobiographical, dealing primarily with Stevens grieving process following the death of his mother, Carrie, in 2012.
Carrie suffered from depression, schizophrenia, and addiction, and was absent through most of Sufjans childhood. Sufjans struggle to come to terms with their relationship and to forgive his mother for her abandonment while simultaneously mourning her loss forms the emotional core of the album.
Meanwhile, the "Lowell" of the title refers to Carries second husband and Sufjans stepdad, Lowell Brams, who served as a surrogate father for Sufjan and with whom he co-founded his record label, Asthmatic Kitty. (In 2020, the pair also released an instrumental New Age album they recorded together, entitled Aporia.)
Stylistically, the album marked a return to the stripped-down indie folk Stevens was known for early in his career, but which he had increasingly moved away from with releases like Illinois (Baroque Pop) and The Age of Adz (Electronic Music). Carrie & Lowell features almost no percussion or symphonic elements, consisting instead of lo-fi guitar and keyboard-led songs with occasional understated electronic touches.
Reception from both fans and critics was overwhelmingly positive; it is tied with 2005s Illinois as Stevens' highest-rated studio album on Metacritic, and is the site's second-highest-rated album of its release year (after Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly—an album which, incidentally, includes a sample from Stevens' The Age of Adz).
- "Death with Dignity" (4:00)
- "Should Have Known Better" (5:08)
- "All of Me Wants All of You" (3:41)
- "Drawn to the Blood" (3:18)
- "Eugene" (2:26) note
- "Fourth of July" (4:40)
- "The Only Thing" (4:44)
- "Carrie & Lowell" (3:14)
- "John My Beloved" (5:03)
- "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" (2:40)
- "Blue Bucket of Gold" (4:44)
Stevens toured extensively following Carrie & Lowells release, performing dynamic rearrangements of the albums songs with an accompanying video and light show. He subsequently released his first ever Live Album, Carrie & Lowell Live, in 2017. (This is currently his best-rated release on Metacritic, scoring one point higher than the studio version itself!) Stevens also put out a companion EP, The Greatest Gift Mixtape: Outtakes, Remixes, and Demos from Carrie & Lowell, the same year.
Carrie & Lowell contains examples of the following tropes:
- Accidental Misnaming / Affectionate Nickname: According to "Eugene", his stepfather initially had difficulty remembering Sufjan's name:The man who taught me to swim, he couldn't quite say my first name
Like a father, he led community water on my head
And he called me Subaru
- Album Title Drop: In the Title Track.
- Anachronic Order: The album jumps from the present to the past then back again, sometimes in the course of the same song; the event that opens the album (the titular Carrie's death) isn't discussed in detail until mid-album.
- Audience Participation Song: "Fourth of July," as demonstrated on the Live Album. It's definitely curious hearing a crowd scream in unison "we're all gonna die!"
- Babies Make Everything Better: From "Should Have Known Better":My brother had a daughter
The beauty that she brings, illumination.
- Bath Suicide: Discussed in "The Only Thing".The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark...
- Bittersweet Ending: The album ends with "Blue Bucket of Gold", in which Sufjan (after admitting his deep emotional wounds in "John My Beloved" and unsuccessfully attempting to heal them in "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross") begins quietly moving on from his mother's death. He pleads for someone to fill the hole left with her departure, whether it be a friend or God, and the song ends with an ambient crescendo that, according to Sufjan, symbolizes him finally letting go and surrendering his mother to the beyond.
- Bizarre Instrument: The guitalin◊ a lute-like instrument invented in the 1960s featured heavily in the album and its subsequent live shows.
- But Liquor Is Quicker: "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross".Like a champion, get drunk to get laid.
- In a nod to the "Eugene" lyric about Sufjan receiving the Affectionate Nickname of "Subaru" from his stepfather, the Greatest Gift track "The Hidden River of My Life'' has Sufjan describing himself as a "Subaru driver".
- In "Should Have Known Better" Sufjan sings "My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination". His Call Me By Your Name track "Mystery of Love", released two years later, includes the line "Cursed by the love that I received / From my brother's daughter".
- Carpe Diem: From "Fourth of July":Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light.
- Crisis of Faith: This is one possible interpretation of "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross."
- Darker and Edgier: Considering it concerns his mother's death and the emotional toll it took on him, this is easily his heaviest album lyrically.
- Darkest Hour: During the downward spiral detailed on the album, "John My Beloved" is the start of his realization of what he has become, but "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" is where he fully hits rock bottom, noting how he has tried distracting himself from his emotions with unhealthy behaviors like sleeping around and drug abuse.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Explicitly mentioned in "All Of Me Wants All of You".You checked your texts while I masturbated
- Despair Event Horizon: Thanks to the Anachronic Order of the depicted events, this happens on various songs in Carrie & Lowell, with "Should Have Known Better" providing the most blatant lyrics:Dont back down, there is nothing left
The breakers in the bar, no reason to live
- Destructive Romance: "Drawn to the Blood. See Domestic Abuse below.
- Domestic Abuse: The narrator in "Drawn to the Blood" suffers this. Unfortunately has a Reality Subtext. From the April 2015 issue of Uncut magazine:Asked whether the abusive relationship described in "Drawn To The Blood" was [Sufjan's] own, he simply answers, "Yes."
- Double Meaning: "No shade in the shadow of the cross", from the song of the same name, could refer to two opposite things: the narrator is either able to escape the ghost (i.e. shade) of his mother through religion, or he's unable to find relief in religion.
- Downer Ending: The album itself has more of a Bittersweet Ending (as discussed above), but most of the individual tracks end on dark notes:
- "Death with Dignity" ("You'll never see us again.")
- "Drawn to the Blood" (What did I do to deserve this now? / How did this happen?")
- "Eugene" ("What's the point of singing songs / If they'll never even hear you?")
- "Fourth of July" ("We're all gonna die.")
- "The Only Thing" ("Should I tear my heart out now? / Everything I feel returns to you somehow.")
- "Carrie & Lowell" ("Ephemera on my back / She breaks my arm.")
- "John My Beloved" ("There's only a shadow of me / In a matter of speaking I'm dead.")
- "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" ("There's no shade in the shadow of the cross.")
- Driven to Suicide: The narrator of "The Only Thing" comes close to this, fantasizing about slitting his arms in a bath, but decides against it after surveying the beautiful things he still sees in life.
- Drowning My Sorrows: A prominent theme of the album.Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away.
- Eleven O'Clock Number: "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross", the penultimate track, represents Sufjan hitting the bottom of his emotional downward spiral.
- Folk Music: Along with 2004's Seven Swans, C&L is one of the most straightforward forays into the genre in Sufjan's catalog.
- Grief Song: An album full of them.
- Happier Home Movie: On the Carrie & Lowell tour, a few of the songs use home movies as a backdrop, often in contrast to their sad tones.
- Heroic BSoD: The whole album, essentially.
- Homoerotic Subtext: See Ho Yay on the YMMV page.
- Hookers and Blow: It gives the narrator of "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" no comfort at all.
- List Song: "The Only Thing", despite its title, is a list of multiple things that the existentially bereft narrator deems Worth Living For.
- Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Just one of the coping mechanisms attempted by the Author Avatar throughout the album.
- Love Hurts: "Drawn to the Blood" ("but my prayer has always been love what did I do to deserve this?")
- Lyrical Dissonance: The album is full of pretty melodies accompanying stories of parental neglect, death of loved ones, substance abuse, Domestic Abuse, failed relationships, Self-Harm, and suicidal thoughts.
- Minimalism / Three Chords and the Truth: C&L sees Sufjan at his most stripped-down, with minimum instrumentation, lo-fi production values, and a run time of well under an hour. In some ways this is about as far from Illinois as it gets. (The Live Album, on the other hand, reimagines several of the tracks in a much more bombastic way.)
- Missing Mom: Sufjan's complicated feelings surrounding his rarely present mother Carrie are a common theme throughout C&L.
- Name and Name: Carrie & Lowell.
- Parental Neglect: The albums underlying theme.
- Pelvic Thrust: Done during live performances of "All of Me Wants All of You", presumably to make it clear that the song is indeed about a sexual relationship.
- Precision F-Strike: On "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross":There's blood on that bladeFuck me, I'm falling apart
- Rearrange the Song: The Greatest Gift EP includes remixes and demo versions of several Carrie and Lowell tracks, and the recordings on the C&L Live Album often feature extensive rearrangement as well.
- Self-Harm: Referenced extensively.
- Sex for Solace: Part of "No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross" may be describing this.Like a championGet drunk to get laid
- Shout-Out: There are quite a few of them throughout the album, for example:
- "Death with Dignity" references the fable of the little Red Hen, wherein an industrious barnyard animal does all the hard work to make bread while the other animals laze around.
- The indifferent partner in "All of Me Wants All of You" is compared to Poseidon, the ancient Greek god the sea.
- "Drawn to the Blood" references the myth of Samson and Delilah.
- "In the Shadow of the Cross" is a hymn by William J. Henry.
- We All Die Someday: The repeated refrain of "we're all gonna die" from "Fourth of July".
- Worth Living For: "The Only Thing", whose narrator contemplates suicide but ultimately decides not to go through with it after witnessing all the natural wonders around him.