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Sufjan Stevens Considers Grief

Sufjan Steven’s latest album, “Carrie and Lowell,” is a poetic tribute to Steven’s mother, a woman he barely knew. A woman who suffered from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and substance abuse problems, she left Stevens and his siblings when they were very young. After she remarried, Stevens spent some summers with her in Oregon as a child.

When she died of cancer, Stevens describes his grief as something of a shock: it was remarkably potent, considering their limited relationship. Yet grappling with that grief, in all its nuances and difficulties, created the foundation for Steven’s newest album—songs that are not exhibitionist, but rather emblematic of the pains, the virtues, and the vices of our grief.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Stevens described his relationship with his mother:

She left when I was 1, so I have no memory of her and my father being married. She just wandered off. She felt that she wasn’t equipped to raise us, so she gave us to our father. It wasn’t until I was 5 that Carrie married Lowell. He worked in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, and we spent three summers out there—that’s when we actually saw our mother the most.

But after she and Lowell split up, we didn’t have that much contact with Carrie. Sometimes she’d be at our grandparents’ house, and we’d see her during the holidays for a few days. There was the occasional letter here and there. She was off the grid for a while, she was homeless sometimes, she lived in assisted housing. There was always speculation too, like, “Where is she? What is she doing?” As a kid, of course, I had to construct some kind of narrative, so I’ve always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie, because I have such few lived memories of my experience with her. There’s such a discrepancy between my time and relationship with her, and my desire to know her and be with her.

… She suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.

… We flew to see her in the ICU before she died. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, but she was aware. It was so terrifying to encounter death and have to reconcile that, and express love, for someone so unfamiliar. Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. 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. There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you. It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.

The album begins with the soft, troubled lyrics “I don’t know where to begin.” Each of the songs contain touches of place and memory: the colors and scenery of Eugene, Oregon appear throughout—the city of Tillamook, Spencer’s Butte, Emerald Park.

Light struck from the lemon tree
What if I’d never seen hysterical light from Eugene?
Lemon yoghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt
I dropped the ashtray on the floor
I just wanted to be near you

This is also—according to Steven’s original press release about “Carrie and Lowell”—a return to his “folk roots.” The album’s plucked guitar and acoustic melodies are bluesy and nuanced, yet contain those traces of folk music that seem to parallel nicely with this return to historical, personal roots.

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

Steven’s eclectic career has, in the past, demonstrated almost a lack of bounds: he’s written a ballet score, a symphonic tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, two albums about state history and geography, some of the most beautiful Christmas music I’ve heard.

Yet this album is defined by its limitations: it is the story of a singular relationship, its loss, and how the echoes of that loss reverberated throughout Steven’s life. As Spencer Kornhaber puts it for The Atlantic,

…The most important unifying attribute is restraint. Stevens’s voice only ever leaves “gentle whisper” mode to punctuate verses with a spooky, falsetto whine, and the arrangements develop subtly, adding in a single line of organ or guitar for variation where once there would have been a brass band or tabernacle choir. Indeed, the grandeur and camp that helped make him famous with Come On, Feel the Illinoise would feel obscene here; these songs don’t even attempt the acoustic majesty of Seven Swans, his gorgeous 2004 meditation on Christ and the apocalypse. “This is not my art project; this is my life,” Stevens has said, correctly.

You can contrast this soulful quality to the bubbly pop music of artists such as Taylor Swift, the exhibitionism with which such artists often flaunt their relationships. Much modern pop music is about the flesh in all of its momentariness: it’s about the absence of limits, the absence of burdens on the soul. What we see in Stevens’ music is a negative of our culture’s rootlessness: an album that fleshes out the angst, the deep hunger for connection, the yearning for roots and heritage, the loss and resulting rebellion, that burn in our souls.

The only reason why I continue at all
Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb
Signs and wonders: sea lion caves in the dark
Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart

Some have described Steven’s album as confessional; another calls it a collection of “modern hymns“; NPR says “it feels like a concept album about silence — silence to reflect, silence following a death, silence as an alternative to noise and confusion.”

This is the sort of album you listen to several times, each time looking for greater depth in the lyrics, the cadences of the music. It’s the sort of album that is likely to remind us each of our own personal losses, hurts, hidden burdens.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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