Music in Memoriam: Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie and Lowell’

This past April, I saw Sufjan Stevens at the Chicago Theatre in support of his 2015 release Carrie & Lowell. I had been listening to the album since its release in January – “Should Have Known Better” and the aural transition from grieving to rejoicing, “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” and the failure of religion to adequately console a son, “The Only Thing” and Soof threatening to tear his eyes out because everything he sees reminds him of his late mother, and so on.  It’s a gorgeous album in dedication to Sufjan’s mother, who passed a couple years ago and with whom he had a troubled relationship. Needless to say it took the title of my favorite release of the year pretty early on. But my relationship with the record changed completely that night.

From the moment he stepped on stage to the final notes of the show, the entire crowd was crying. Sufjan himself couldn’t hold back his tears on stage. The part that stuck with me most was when Sufjan took a moment before the encore (an all-Illinoise set) to address the context of the music and the concept of occupation. He told a story about growing up, when a classmate of his in primary school suddenly left. The teacher acknowledged it, but the desk remained empty. A space that was always occupied had become unoccupied. It’s not easy to accept how something that was always present would cease to exist. But in Sufjan’s situation, the class felt that although the seat was empty, the space was still occupied by their former classmate’s presence, as constructed through all of the memories associated with her. So when Sufjan’s mother passed away, her physical presence was no longer there, but her energy was transferred to those who came in contact with her, and she subsequently occupied their bodies. We all carry on the memories of our loved ones; rather, we are occupied by those we have lost. And in this phenomenon, nobody ever truly is forgotten.

Nearly two years ago, I lost a close friend of mine. This is a friend I spent a lot of time with during our college years up until that point, and something that was previously a constant in my life was now missing. I was talking with a close mutual friend of ours recently, when she mentioned that a song came on that she always associated with their friendship. I realized I, too, have various shows (The Book of Mormon, Les Miserables) and moments that always come to mind when I think of our friend. But then, I realized I was so moved by Sufjan’s music because I associated his struggle to accept his mother’s passing with my ongoing struggle with our friend’s passing.

I left the show that night spiritually affected. I suppose everyone in the audience was now occupied by Carrie. Because Sufjan was so open in his grief and personal struggle, I could relate more intensely to his songs than I normally relate to other music. Since that show, I have not been able to listen to anything from Carrie & Lowell out of fear that I’ll be overcome with intense sorrow. And I’m not just saying that to be dramatic – tears have formed in my eyes re-reading some of the lyrics from the songs in preparation for writing this.

I think Carrie & Lowell is a phenomenal album because of how open Sufjan is in sharing this story – Sufjan and his relation with his stepfather and his mother is central to the album, and the album does not operate without that context. It is rare to find albums that are so directly influenced by the artist’s life and circumstances and are so publicly known. I mean, childhood video of Sufjan with his mother played on the glowing cathedral backdrop on stage throughout the show – it can’t get more personal than opening up your home video archive to people you don’t know. Another similar album is Passion Pit’s sophomore record Gossamer, an album heavily influenced by Michael Angelakos’ mental health issues and strained friendship with his wife amidst the chaos in their lives. When Angelakos sings that he’ll be alright, you can feel the despair in this promise to his wife. When Patti Smith talks about the late Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, you can feel their admiration for each other just by looking at the Horses album cover. When Meg starts bawling on Jack’s shoulder as he sings “White Moon” to her at the conclusion of Under Great White Northern Lights, it’s like Meg’s anxiety finally came to a head and burst for all to see. When artists are genuine and share their lives with their audiences, the result is beautiful and empowering. And often, that art sticks with us and, ultimately, occupies us.

Sometimes, it takes months to move yourself to listen to a song or album again because of the memories associated with it. It took me a year to finally accept that my friend was gone. Eventually I’ll open my vinyl copy of Carrie & Lowell, now gathering dust for about the same amount of time, slowly drop the needle on track one, and brace myself. I’ll remember Alexis and Carrie, and I’ll cry.

Should I tear my ears off now? Everything I hear returns to you somehow.


Excerpt from ‘M Train’ by Patti Smith

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