I cannot possibly heap too much praise on Sufjan Steven’s latest album, Carrie & Lowell. Nor can I fathom expressing how its constant companionship has affected me since its release. What I can do, is give you a bit of background.
In Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s mother and stepfather, Sufjan highlights fragments of childhood memories and presents us with a strikingly honest portrayal of his emotional state leading up to and following his mother’s passing. Although the album is chock-full of highly specific, often ambiguous references- either to places, people, mythology, or religion- listeners learn a great deal about Sufjan’s psyche and, in doing so, grapple with stark truths underlying the human condition.
A helpful hint: Eugene is a city in Oregon, where Sufjan spent summers with his mother and step-father.
Light struck from the lemon tree
What if I’d never seen hysterical light from Eugene?
Lemon yogurt, remember I pulled at your shirt
I dropped the ashtray on the floor
I just wanted to be near you
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
Still I pray to what I cannot see
In the sprinkler I mark the evidence known from the start
From the bed near your death, and all the machines that made a mess
Far away the falcon flew
Now I want to be near you
What’s left is only bittersweet
For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me
Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?
Somehow, in Carrie & Lowell (a radical departure from 2010’s The Age of Adz), Sufjan manages to craft songs with fairly simple chord structures and bare, guitar-centric instrumentation that always seem to push new frontiers. Eugene is no exception.
In Eugene, Sufjan’s lullaby vocals braid the delights of childhood with the devastation of adulthood. Although the central focus of the album is Sufjan’s mother, the majority of Eugene is an ode to his step-father, Lowell, and a requiem for Sufjan’s younger years. The first stanzas detail Sufjan’s trips to Eugene, Oregon- a place with lemon trees, wooded parks, and summer swims. The wondrous nature of Eugene acts as a befitting backdrop to the flowering of Sufjan’s relationship with his step-father. It is the memory of this relationship, colored with nicknames, ashtrays, and yogurt, that has stuck with Sufjan through the years (“I just want to be near you”).
Religion plays a crucial role as well, both in childhood: “like a Father he led community water on my head” and in adulthood: “Still I pray to what I cannot see” (although the “never ceasing wonders” of childhood have been replaced with the “messy machines” of adulthood). How Sufjan convincingly evokes a sun-dappled nostalgia at the start of the song and a defeatist depression in the latter section without much of a musical shift or transition, is hard to say. But then again, not much of the wistful heartache that Sufjan breathes into his music can be adequately put into words.
“What’s the point in singing songs if they never even hear you”, is the question that Sufjan leaves us with. While he is most likely referring to his deceased mother’s inability to hear his music, this question is a powerful one that can be applied broadly. Is there a point of praying if God doesn’t hear us? If you were the last man on earth, would there be any reason to live a moral life? Are our thoughts and actions solely means to an end?
Perhaps prayer is more of a meditative channeling of the soul then a call for help. Maybe writing a song has less to do with our audience and much to do with pausing and listening to ourselves. And maybe, when this is our true motivation, rare gems of artwork emerge.
Check out this song here, and remember to drop a comment below!