12 plays of Christmas – Sufjan Stevens

11. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

New Year is a time of great sadness and great joy, of fear and hope. A collective construct, a chosen moment, that allows us to reflect and to dream. There is the sadness of times we will not live again and the fear that we cannot return to such dizzy heights. There are the people lost.There is the joy of memories, those seconds etched immemorial and incorporeal in our minds. And there is the hope of things to come. Places and people that have not yet touched our lives, shadows cast behind us as we are reborn.

In these final two plays, I shall deal with both. Firstly to the sadness which, by the by, doesn’t have to be depressing. It can also be beautiful and elegiac, it can be the warmth of shared human experience, it can be a companion in our loneliness.

Carrie & Lowell is a sad record. It is also a rich tapestry, recording the complexity of family relations, of love and loss and of healing and rebirth. It’s a man coming to terms with a difficult relationship with a difficul person, his mother. It’s also my favourite Sufjan record since Seven Swans. 

Having spent a decade consuming other people’s lives and cultures and tenderly recreating them in song, Sufjan has produced something so personal and intimate that it almost feels as if you shouldn’t be listening. Should have known better is a fragile memory, a hand grasping for the confused assurance of childhood:

Given that she abandoned him Stevens could hate his mother, but never seems to. Instead, to a sweeping, haunting, yet almost orchestral background he explores her life, his own and their relationship. On the peerless Fourth of July we are privy to an inagined conversation, it’s awkwardness leaving us shattered and edgy:

Well you do enough talk

My little hawk, why do you cry?

Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?

Or the Fourth of July?

We’re all gonna die

There is blood on the studio floor, anger and resentment war with love and forgiveness. There can be only one winner. The final track My Blue Bucket Of Gold is the sound of someone looking forward, their mother beside them but not dominating, just an important piece of the past, looking down and smiling wryly:

Carrie & Lowell is the most rewarding album of the year. It’s not always an easy listen because it constantly challenges you emotionally and intellectually. It is a brave and inspiring piece of art. You can grab this amazing record from Asthmatic Kitty.

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