Nothing truly prepares anyone for the loss of a parent. No matter how aware one may be about the realities of disease and death, no matter what their attitude about their mother or father, experiencing the passing of the person who brought them into this world hits hard and deep, and the survivors are left to come to terms with their pain in their own ways. Sufjan Stevens is a songwriter and a musician, so it should come as no surprise that in the wake of the death of his mother Carrie in 2012, his grief took the form of a collection of songs. But 2015's Carrie & Lowell is not a simple homage to Sufjan Stevens' mother and stepfather. Sufjan Stevens had a difficult relationship with his mother that would defy a simple farewell; she left his father when Sufjan Stevens was just a year old, and she was a random presence throughout much of his childhood. While there's deep and genuine love in Carrie & Lowell, there's also uncertainty, sadness, and brief but jagged bursts of anger; these songs speak of loss and heartache and the difficult push and pull of familial relationships, but they're also full of random memories, both pleasant and troubling, and they leap from reveries of family vacations faded by the passing of decades, to the immediate regrets of what was or wasn't said and done in the aftermath of death. Carrie & Lowell is about memory as much as mourning, and Sufjan Stevens has drawn these songs in a purposefully elegant manner, with his introspection accompanied by beautiful but homespun melodies, and the arrangements and production only magnifying their dreamlike, whisper-quiet drift that strikes with an emotional force that a louder, more violent approach could not achieve. Carrie & Lowell is a heartfelt expression of love that is devoid of the slightest hint of sentimentality, and with these songs, Sufjan Stevens strips his emotions bare and allows us all to be the audience for his anger, shame, and sense of loss as he pages through his memories of his family. Carrie & Lowell is the most harrowingly personal work Sufjan Stevens has offered us to date; it also ranks with his most skillfully crafted albums despite its spartan approach, and it's a sometimes difficult but profoundly moving work. Sufjan Stevens has offered us some fine albums in the past, but he's never made anything quite like Carrie & Lowell. [An LP version was also released.] ~ Mark Deming
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