Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens: Music Review

Bio

Heralded as a prominent singer-songwriter, an adept multi-instrumentalist, and introspective lyricist, Sufjan Stevens has become a household name in modern acoustic/folk music. With albums like Michigan and Illinois that placed him in the mainstream limelight, Stevens has 14 years of successful releases with a knack for experimentation.

Background

I was introduced to Sufjan Stevens through my church in Winona last year. They played his rendition of Come Thou Font of Every Blessing from one of his multiple Christmas albums to tell the story of Robert Robinson who originally composed this song in the 1750’s. Listening to the banjo and xylophone drive this emotional hymn still gives me chills.

please credit © Denny Renshaw
please credit © Denny Renshaw

I began to explore his discography, but not steadily. I’ve bounced from album to album through only a couple tracks, so I’m not an expert on this guy. I can gather from what I’ve heard that Stevens dares to explore. He taps into electronica and very grandiose production on albums like The Age of Adz and The Avalanche, which is a departure from the traditional singer-songwriter material he built his career on. I think his vast exploration is what makes his music kind of inaccessible to me, because it’s hard to narrow in on a consistent sound. I can conclude Stevens dares to delve into a deep pool of musical exploration that hasn’t done much for me, but has certainly gained him a trusted following. That now brings us his 2015 release, Carrie and Lowell. If anything, this will be a new thing for me. I’m reviewing an album that I have little background on.

Instrumentation/ Songwriting

Carrie and Lowell takes a turn for the somber and reflective with very one dimensional (in a good way) instrumentation that is only fueled by an acoustic guitar and Steven’s raspy voice. This album is stripped down and extremely intimate. You almost get the feeling that you’re sitting across from him in a dim room with nothing more than a guitar and a comfortable chair to accompany you.

Track Reviews

Carrie and Lowell vinyl cover. Photo credit: Pinterest
Carrie and Lowell vinyl cover. Photo credit: Pitchfork

Should Have Known Better and Eugene are two of many songs that have this contrasting feel between such bright sounding melodies and such dreary lyricism. Perhaps the catchiest song on this entire record (also my favorite) with a complex composition and hollowed out background vocals, Eugene tells the story of growing up with his grandfather. Should Have Known Better is actually one of my favorite instrumentals that has this soft looping synthesizer arpeggio in the bridge. Honestly, if you turned that line up and married it with some cheer, you could probably find it on an Owl City record. It’s coupled with very personal lyrics that relay a story about his mother (keep reading to find the significance. You will find that songs about his family drive this album through a foggy night of bleakness). Fourth of July really brings the heavy atmosphere with a dose of raining production that creates this thick, hazy reverb reminiscent of indie rock outfits like Now, Now. The way that Steven’s ends this song repeating the line, “We’re all gonna die” is a very haunting passage on this album. Blue Bucket of Gold is where the album nosedives into the deep end of sadness. Rather than arpeggio picked acoustic guitar, a muzzled piano chord progression set the scene for Stevens’ melodic whisper. It’s a very somber way to end an already moody record.

Lyricism

Reading an interview from Pitchfork and collecting information from other reviews of this album gives me some insight about the anguish that Stevens’ is trying to put on paper and record. Most of this album is Stevens’ processing the death of his alcoholic mother who also suffered from mental illness for most of his upbringing. Delving beyond that, Stevens’ deals with a lot of estranged familial relationships with a brutally honest and nimble demeanor. I think it was refreshing to hear someone hash out situations in a civil way where it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to write a 44 minute burn book. It feels honest and underpins so many natural human emotions that anyone can relate to – particularly those who have lost someone close. Or anyone who has trudged through turbulent relationships.

Photo credit: Pinterest
Photo credit: Pinterest

Production

As I said earlier, this album doesn’t have complexity in its production. It seems pretty deliberate so it sounds like you’re reading this letter. It’s addressed to you, for your eyes only (#jamesbondreference), and takes you on an emotional journey. The hefty synthesizers and ambient background noise in these tracks add to what the instrumentation and vocals don’t already fill.

Conclusion

I really wanted to like this album, but it was hard for me to get into it. Though I don’t have an issue with the songwriting or Steven’s vocals, the despondent atmosphere that this album is soaked in drips into this teary puddle that doesn’t have much replay value for me. This is not an album I can repeatedly listen to and enjoy for that reason, though there are some good songs on it. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it. I will hold onto Steven’s Christmas albums and keep this one on a back burner for when I’m feeling blue.

Score: 73/100

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ecclesiastes and bacon strips. and bacon strips.

Those who know me understand my prolific love for bacon. There’s something about its crispy, smoky goodness and way it leaves grease on your fingers that makes it so delectable. But it goes beyond that for me. There’s an experience with bacon that actually resonates. I know this already sounds weird, but stay with me.

Pretty much. Photo credit: Epic meal time
Pretty much. Photo credit: Epic meal time

My love for bacon is matched by a few things. As you can infer from the content of this blog, music is one, digging trenches into the human condition, contemplating God, and friends are others. For me, a fourth one is the Biblical wisdom literature – Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs.

Ecclesiastes is hands down my favorite book in the Bible. Archeological analysis of syntax, literary style, and context suggest that this book is written by King Solomon – one of the few kings in the Israelite monarchy that actually does something right. Aloe Blacc wrote songs like, “The Man” after men like Solomon. He had everything a guy could ever want – good looks, charisma, military power, cash money, women, and more notably, wisdom. Solomon was this contemplative sage who built a dynasty over 40 years in 1st Kings that left this Biblical legacy which goes all the way to the teachings of Christ in the book of Matthew.

Ecclesiastes is also considered one of the darkest books in the Bible. It begins in Chapter one, verse one with the words, “Everything is meaningless.” It’s also translated as, “Life is vanity.” It’s kind of the theme of the book. Solomon takes 12 chapters to talk about how he was the man and that it all meant nothing in the end. Furthermore, it meant nothing at the time without the understanding that all good comes from God. It kind of reminds me of the lurid montra, “Life sucks and then you die.”

An artist's rendition of King Solomon. Photo credit: Raining Truth Prayer
An artist’s rendition of King Solomon. Photo credit: Raining Truth Prayer

When you really dig into the text, you find something beautiful amongst the despair. Particularly in chapters 7 through 9, you find that the end of each maxim of vanity is tied off by a reminder to live and enjoy the good things while you can. Work hard, earn your keep, pray, and enjoy the simple things while you are on this Earth.

Reading those vignettes within Ecclesiastes helped change my outlook on life, the way I pray, and how God plays a role in the small things.

So, what do bacon and Ecclesiastes have in common?

Chapter 8, verse 15. “So I commend the enjoyment of life, for there is nothing better for a man to do than to eat, drink and be merry. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”

This passage talks about how life will no go your way. Contextually, someone else will get that promotion, your car is going to eventually break down in the middle of traffic on a morning where you have somewhere to be, friends may become estranged, there will be times when the bad guys win, the good guys lose, and you will grieve. So what do you do about it? My remedy is get a bunch of guys over, play football, duel in Mario Party 3, and eat bacon.

Small things like guy nights, good walks, driving with the windows down, music cranked, and boisterous laughter are all things that I cherish maybe more than the average person. In the last two years, I have begun to see those things as gifts from God that I get to enjoy. For a moment when life is overwhelming, I open a fresh package of bacon and remember that there are things to be celebrated. I’m still moving, still breathing, and the suffering is temporary (even though it’s sometimes hard to convince myself otherwise).

Find your bacon. What do you do for fun? How do you unwind? Set the laptop and homework down and crack open a cold beer. Eat something you like. Watch a comedy or turn on the game. Read a good book. Get some friends together and play full contact Pictionary (random, but fun). Hop on your bike. The next time you do those things, think about how God has come through once again. You’re still moving.