A Sufjan Stevens fan posted a screenshot of the comment box of Stevens’ website a few months back. Their message to Sufjan: “you hurt me so good with your tiny voice,” quite an endorsement. And this was well before the release of “Carrie & Lowell,” an album spun from Stevens’ most painful personal stories, and sung in the tiniest voice he can manage.
Many people will know Stevens as the fifty states guy, who set out to make an album for every star on the American flag starting with Michigan and Illinois. “Carrie & Lowell” could have been disguised as “Oregon” if he mixed in a few nods to the fur trade and Fort Astoria, but the allusions to location are more stage pieces than focal points. We get glimpse of the sea lion caves and the Tillamook Burn, but instead of mythologizing history as Stevens is wont to do, they tell us about the nature of his childhood. We’re seeing those summers in Oregon through little Sufjan’s eyes and hearing about them from his warbly choir boy voice. It’s wondrous and treacherous, mystical in its gloom.
The real center of the story is Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, who left her family in Michigan when Sufjan was a year old. She had intense struggles with mental illness that distanced her permanently from her children’s lives, and in 2012 she passed away, leaving Sufjan to gather his feelings and shape them into these 11 songs. On the sidelines is Lowell Brams, who married and divorced Carrie and became a more present father figure in Sufjan’s life, and eventually the director of Asthmatic Kitty.
Some of the most tender memories voiced on the album are about Lowell. “The man who taught me how to swim couldn’t quite say my first name,” Sufjan sings on “Eugene,” over nimbly plucked strings. The song is named for the Oregon town where Lowell worked in a bookstore. “Like a father he led community water on my head and he called me Subaru.” When the spirit of Carrie feels erratic and untethered, Lowell’s presence is a steadying hand.
That’s not to say this album condemns Carrie’s legacy. On the contrary, Sufjan eulogizes her by way of forgiveness. “I love you more than the world can contain/ in it’s lonely and ramshackle head,” he sings on “John My Beloved” like a solemn Mother’s Day card. On the first track, “Death with Dignity,” he asks “be near me, tired old mare/with the wind in your hair,” making his mother into a freed angel, moments before describing how she left her children in a video store. Her hurtful actions don’t pull against his love. They are just painful steps to the present day. Later on the same song Stevens references Proverbs 7:22, comparing himself to an ox in fetters, perhaps trapped by his mother’s pattern of self-destruction.
That impulse to follow in her footsteps comes back on “The Only Thing,” which has Stevens thinking about driving “half-light jackknife into the canyon at night.” It’s a tense five minutes as he sings about tearing himself apart to avoid remembering, all in that somber Christmas carol tone. The transition into the galloping Old West guitar of the title track feels like emerging from a long, pitch-dark tunnel with white knuckles on the steering wheel.
Perhaps the most vulnerable we find Stevens is when the veil of the reverent son is cast away and he curses in his lyrics. In the last few seconds of “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” Stevens cries out “there’s blood on that blade/ f— me I’m falling apart.” We can feel him collapsing under the past, trembling with the weight of unconditional love. What makes “Carrie & Lowell” deeply touching is how touched Stevens is by his own music. He is working through the mystery of death for himself, and Sufjan is such a sweetheart that we’d like to reach out and hold his hand through it.
In quiet gaps throughout the album you can catch the faint whirr of an air conditioning unit hanging out of an apartment window. It’s a striking aspect of the recording process, because his past work has been so ornamented in orchestration and allusion that we’ve rarely seen him as a person with his own personal myths. Finally we’re not following Sufjan Stevens through a fantasy, we’re in his childhood bedroom, reading his diary over his shoulder. He knows we’re there, but the songs still belong to him, and to Carrie and Lowell.

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