The inner sleeve of Carrie & Lowell features a photo of Sufjan Stevens at about five years old. He’s in a big-collared blue shirt and having a banana for breakfast. His mother, Carrie, is in shot but looking away. Sufjan looks happy. It’s such a normal shot, except it’s not. The photo was taken on one of the few occasions Stevens ever spent time with his mother. Carrie, who struggled with schizophrenia and alcohol abuse, left him, his father and siblings when he was a year old. She moved to Oregon and got married again, for a few years, to Lowell Brams. The album’s not about Lowell; it’s not even about Carrie, particularly, as much as it is about the absence of her. A few ’80s summer holiday visits aside, Sufjan and Carrie never reunited; the closest they grew was when he sat with her in the hospice decades later after she was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. She died in 2012.
Pop music is supposed to reflect what goes on in our lives, but there is next to nothing in pop music that deals with grief. You think of Patti Smith (Gone Again) and Lou Reed (Magic & Loss), or more recently Mumblin’ Deaf Ro (Dictionary Crimes) but you are relying here on artists who’ve made a point of expanding the subject matter under discussion in songs. You would think that bereavement, the most universal of experiences, wouldn’t need specialist treatment. Still, it’s tough for a song or a set of songs to capture the immensity of grief in the way that prose can. So the touchstones remain the likes of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking or Aleksandar Hemon’s The Aquarium, which is such a pure distillation of sorrow that it’s simultaneously impossible to put down and almost unreadable.
John Lennon has probably provided the most precise musical precursor to Carrie & Lowell. John’s mother Julia also left him when he was a baby and died before he was a Beatle. His first post-Beatles album, Plastic Ono Band, was his attempt to make sense of that loss, bookended by ‘Mother’ (“Momma don’t go”) and ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ (“I can’t get it through my head”.) On Carrie & Lowell, a son also yearns for the mother he never knew. Being Sufjan, though, there’s no primal screaming: he sings in a double-tracked whisper for the most part. There are no drums, and the carefully arranged accompaniment is at all times nuanced and unobtrusive – the likes of Thomas Bartlett and Laura Veirs feature, delicately serving the songs. But this is every bit as anguished, perplexed and abandoned as Plastic Ono Band was. “Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, but you didn’t want me,” sang John on ‘Mother’; “I wonder did you love me at all?” asks Sufjan on ‘The Only Thing’.
The album is structured around remembrances of their few times together (such as ‘Eugene’ or ‘Should Have Known Better’) and Sufjan’s responses to Carrie’s absence and death (‘All Of Me Wants All of You’, ‘Death With Dignity’, ‘The Only Thing’). ‘Death With Dignity’ opens the album and immediately sets its emotional tone, as an almost sprightly arpeggiated chord progression in E is supported by gentle piano and the song concludes: “I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end”. The chord structures in several songs are relatively simple and dominated by major keys. To a non-musicologist like me this has the effect of couching difficult lyrical content in music that’s almost overdoing its upbeatness; using the chords to be comforting the way you might use a singsong voice to break bad news to a child (“He’s fine now, pet. He’s in doggie Heaven!”)
‘Fourth of July’ is the album’s apotheosis. The song brings together memory, empathy, grief and forgiveness, as it recounts a healing conversation between mother and son that never happened and had to be imagined. A percussive keyboard cycles resolutely through A, D, and E major chords as Sufjan voices Carrie’s half-regrets: “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”. The song concludes with a real life memory of Sufjan and his mum together after her death: “The hospital asked should be body be cast /Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky / Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth / Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?” This is the album’s ‘The Aquarium’ moment: a song so bravely and beautifully drawn that you’re glued to it; so helpless, pained and intimate that you nearly have to turn away.
In Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan is singing about emotions that are dug out of him and matters that most of us will recognise. The pain and perplexity of mourning; the validation that parental love alone equips us with as kids, that can’t be found anywhere else; the search for identity. In ‘The Only Thing’ he goes as far as pondering not only how, but whether, to carry on. Aleksandar Hemon wrote of his daughter’s death “Though I recall that moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me”.
Tanya Sweeney wrote recently in the Irish Times that after she buried her mother she demanded that her family join her in bringing her back from her grave: “We need to go down there and bring her home!” Tanya says that at time she had taken “bewildering leave of [her] senses”, but I thought she made perfect sense. Who could second guess her? We have no idea what to do with death so we return to magical thinking – we regress. Patti Smith wrote “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?” and Sufjan opens ‘Fourth of July’ with the same mystical self-criticism: “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?”
What the writers I’ve cited suggest, and Carrie & Lowell confirms, is that intense grief can be documented, poetry even extracted from it, but we are not built for it and we can’t absorb it. We can’t expect to understand real loss any more than preschool Sufjan peering out from the the inner sleeve. What I see in that photo and hear in these songs is that grief may be too much for us. We think we’re really something, but when it comes down to it, we’re just kids.