33 And 1/3 Under 45: The B-Sides – Carrie & Lowell

The B-sides is a spin-off column for albums chosen by patreon backers. If you would like to hear an audio version of this column (Mechanics) or suggest an album (Pilots) head here.

This album was selected by Will.

Spirit of my silence, I can hear you. But I’m afraid to be near you.
And I don’t know where to begin
And I don’t know where to begin

Folk music can be a real bummer. Indie folk? Forget about it. Sufjan Stevens? Well, I might as well grab some ice cream because I’ve been listening to his 2015 album, Carrie & Lowell, and it’s a doozy. I’ve only heard Sufjan’s earlier indie-folk stylings in passing, and years ago at that, so I had no idea what to expect when this album was picked for my first requested record. I’d heard he got really experimental with electronica music? Well, definitely not here because this is a real mellow acoustic album and, even with that, it has a lot of weight to it.

I should have known better, to see what I could see.
My black shroud, holding down my feelings
A pillar for my enemies
I should have wrote a letter, and grieve what I happen to grieve
My black shroud, I never trust my feelings
I waited for the remedy

When I was three, maybe four, she left us at the video store
Be my rest, be my fantasy

The album deals with some more complex looks at death than I was prepared for. Sufjan’s mother had just passed away and this record deals a lot with the difficulties he’s feeling, as she was not exactly the most… present kind of parent. But still, when someone’s gone, it has a sense of finality, regardless of whether we’re able to make our peace with them before they go. 

When I was three, and free to explore
I saw her face on the back of the door
Be my vest, be my fantasy

I should have known better, nothing can be changed
The past is still the past, the bridge to nowhere
I should’ve wrote a letter, explaining what I feel, that empty feeling

This album really made me think about my relationships with people and what it would be like if the current status quo was permanently set as the finale. The album is full of the kinds of solemn regrets that accompany them, but that in and of itself is not all that rare in folk music. The tone is really what sets Carrie & Lowell apart. Sufjan has this atmospheric and airy quality that draws you in and just kinda floats around your head for a while. Even when I wasn’t initially picking up the themes, the intent was clear. I generally gravitate towards much more full and upbeat folk, like The Decemberists, but I still found myself getting lost in the world he was painting, even when the song itself was deeply somber.

For my prayer has always been love, what did I do to deserve this?
With blood on my sleeve, Delilah, avenge my grief
How? God of Elijah

As fire to the sun, tell me what I have done.
How? Heart of a dragon?

One of the things that really stood out to me on this record was how specifically anecdotal Sufjan’s lyrics could be. A lot of folk comes across as “everyman” stories and universal truths, but here, Sufjan doesn’t steer away from specific locales and stories that help build his story as more personal, less universal and help build an irresistible ethos around his narrative.

Emerald Park, wonders never cease
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,” and now I want to be near you

Since I was old enough to speak, I’ve said it with alarm
Some part of me was lost in your sleeve where you hid your cigarettes
No, I’ll never forget. I just want to be near you.

Carrie & Lowell isn’t my usual style and I found myself drawn in a lot more to the lyrics than the more stripped down and slower musical stylings of the record. But sitting with them as I wrote really helped me internalize just how personal and poetic a lot of these songs are. After the first few listens, I didn’t expect to be so moved by the honesty that Sufjan shows about his relationship with not only his mother, but his stepfather who remains a very positive and important part of Sufjan’s life. The difficulties he went through, grieving someone who was not there for him, while still being supported by someone who’s life his mother chose to be a more active part of make Carrie & Lowell an album as complex as it is beautiful and one that’s definitely worth following along with as you get lost in the music.

So can we be friends sweetly, before the mystery ends?
I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head
There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead

I’m holding my breath, my tongue on your chest, what can be said of the heart?
If history speaks, the kiss on my cheek, where there remains but a mark
Beloved my John, so I’ll carry on, counting my cards down to one
And when I am dead, come visit my bed, my fossil is bright in the sun

So can we contend peacefully before my history ends?
Jesus, I need you, be near, come shield me from fossils that fall on my head
There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking, I’m dead

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