The Three Musical Victories on Sufjan's Carrie & Lowell

Note: This is the third of a three part series further exploring Sufjan Stevens' 2015 album Carrie & Lowell. Part 1 can be found here: The Sufjan Stevens Narrative Spectrum: A Visual Guide and Part 2 can be found here: A Chronological Tracklisting of Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell. For links to other articles on Sufjan's music and Carrie & Lowell in particular please see the end of this article.

Let's be clear: Sufjan Steven's intimate, heartbreaking autobiographical song-cycle Carrie & Lowell is a triumph. As a complete work it is a musical triumph, an out and out victory. It is beautiful and sad and just a great listen.

The album's greatness is not what the present article is about—that is assumed from the outset (haha). As 2015 comes to a close there will be plenty of music publications listing Carrie & Lowell on its Top 10 Lists and I cannot wait to read them.

This article instead zeroes in on two key moments from Carrie & Lowell, moments where Sufjan lets us know his music is equally important as his lyrics. The lyrics are certainly telling the story of Sufjan's troubled upbringing with his distant and mentally ill mother, of her death in 2012, and of the inward and outward journey Sufjan went on in her death's wake, but his music accompanies that story as well and you can be certain we would not love these songs so much if the music were not equally as heartbreaking.

Sufjan had to do some overcoming in his personal life and brilliantly he managed to convey those victories musically on Carrie & Lowell in three distinct places, namely the songs "Should Have Know Better", "The Only Thing", and (more subtly so) the end of "Blue Bucket of Gold". He creates these moments of emotional release, of letting go, and redemption in the midst of songs we originally thought were about deep unrelenting regret, the very real contemplation to end one's own life, or the demise of a relationship.

A vast majority of Carrie & Lowell resides in the thematic, spectral, and aural lowlands. The songs find Sufjan in a state of moral and emotional ambivalence. He is either sad, confused, destructive, or numbly empty and void of direction. His music very much reflects this state. The instrumentation is subdued throughout, often minor keyed, and when not minor keyed a pervasive melancholy weight affixes itself to every chord: everyone we love is going to die, everyone we have struggled to love is going to die, and even we, ourselves, are going to die.  What is more, while we are yet alive we barely know each other and hardly know what this life is all about.

Still, what becomes apparent as we listen to the songs is every one of them is filled with hope. He even begins the album declaring he forgives his mother. We have not even gotten into his tragic story and she is already exonerated. Sufjan cannot help but hope in spite of himself. In the end, that is, during the most hope-filled moments on Carrie & Lowell Sufjan kind of "casts his fate to the wind." He puts his faith and trust in God, his family, and the wonders of creation. He even resigns himself to the fact that the deep wound left by his mother, a wound rift from both her life and death, is part of what makes him who he is and thus serves a purpose in his life.

But the music still stays in the lowlands, except for two, maybe three key moments.

The first occurs right at the bridge of "Should Have Known" better. There is a distinctive shift in the song's tone, both its emotional focus and tonal center, shifting from the key of E minor in the first half of the song to the relative major key G in the second half of the song until the end. The refrain ("Oh, be my rest, be my fantasy") is also based in G major but at that point in the song the tonal center remains E minor. In other words, it feels like it is in E minor. At the bridge, denoted by the second set of "I should have known better[s]", the song now feels like it is in G major. The music shifts and with it shifts Sufjan's lyrics. Using the exact same melodic line as in the first verses of the song but supported by different chords (a G major chord followed by a C major chord in the bridge instead of a E minor followed by an A major in the verses), the repeated line "I should have known better" takes on an entirely different meaning. When Sufjan first says this line he is beating himself up about it. He is an emotionally paralyzed adult living under the "black shroud" of regret and depression, of what could have been in his relationship with his mother. But when he says the line in the bridge it is with a touch of humor: "Silly ole me—I should have known better. But that's ok, nothing can be changed, the past is still the past, a bridge to nowhere." The same lyric, sung with the same melody, but with a different tonal base, says something different. The shift in the music signifies a shift in Sufjan.

By my understanding of Carrie & Lowell, "Should Have Known Better" is the last song to occur chronologically in the story, even though it appears as song two on the album. Chronologically speaking (and not according to the album's actual tracklisting) Sufjan has journeyed through a confused childhood of wanting to be close to his mother but being unable to, to an emotionally distant adult who still attempts to love those around him, to attending to her death, to eventually going on a long trip to Oregon in the hopes of making sense of his past, present, and whether or not he can even continue to live in the future. The second half of "Should Have Known Better" finds Sufjan making a kind of declarative "Yes, I'm going to keep on living even though things still do not make a whole lot of sense to me". 

The song almost seems to end with Sufjan doing the best he can to encourage himself to let the past be the past and to live in the present: "Don't back down, concentrate on seeing, the breaker's in the bar, the neighbors greeting, my brother had a daughter, the beauty that she bring, illumination." Indeed, the last word in the song is "illumination", a state within Sufjan brought on by the birth of Sufjan's niece who is (not without significance) Carrie's granddaughter. Where Sufjan's words end ("Illumination...") his experience begins, and like all human experience we can venture to guess it is a complex one. It is emotional and spiritual. It is communal (familial) and personal. As listeners we are not entirely sure what his "illumination" entails and yet the music gives us all we need. Sufjan is in a new state; a change of some significance has occurred. He has moved past his past—though it will always be with him in some way. The song itself does not actually end there, the music continuing on with a 35 second instrumental of an almost nirvanic set of downward chords, each one struck and let to ring out clearly, as if echoing in Sufjan's mind. A small victory has been had, the victory of release and letting go. Sufjan describes this victory just as much through music as he does through his words.

The musical "victory" of "The Only Thing" comes at the mid point of the song as well, except in this case there is a shift in instrumentation only and not tonality. Up to that point in the song (right around 2:30) "The Only Thing" is a very Carrie & Lowell-esque song, featuring only a double-tracked Sufjan vocal and whatever high strung acoustic guitar or ukulele type instrument Sufjan is playing. Then, right as Sufjan sings "I want to save you from your sorrow..." a pedal or slide guitar ascends upon the song like an angelic ray of light. As the brief instrumental interlude continues another electric guitar in the upper register with picked descending 16th notes joins the mix, as does an electric guitar in the lower register, utilizing descending held out chords. All the guitars in this section use a lot of reverb/echo effects, and it results in sounding somewhat like a mixture of horns, perhaps like a trumpet and a french horn. 

In my mind the entrance of the initial slide/pedal guitar is a representation of Sufjan's mother. As she did in the previous song "Fourth of July", Carrie is a character in "The Only Thing" as well. My assertion would be that she is the one speaking "I want to save you from your sorrow" over Sufjan. Up to that point in the song Sufjan seems to be at a breaking point. He has offered two possible ways to kill himself (i.e., driving his car into a canyon and slitting his wrists in a hotel bathroom), and he is despairing, seriously doubting whether his mother ever loved him at all, and seriously unable to contemplate how he is going to live with her ghost haunting him the rest of his life. We can see he is at a point where he honestly feels like it would be better to end his life than to keep going on in this never-ending state of despair.

And then the ghost of Carrie enters (or is she an angel now?), in the form of both a rapturous pedal guitar and a line of deliverance, and releases Sufjan from the pain. For the rest of the song Sufjan lyrically falls back into the great cloud of unknowing. He finds peace not because he found all the answers and every last tension in his life got resolved. Instead, all he offers us are a few simple lines, this time singing with a choir of multi-tracked Sufjan-vocals and not just the double-track: "Signs and wonders: sea lion caves in the dark. Blind faith, God's grace, nothing else left to impart." Again, as in "Should Have Known Better" Sufjan's words end where his experience begins. Throwing out a phrase like "God's grace" almost inherently sounds trite and Sufjan knows it. Nothing else left to impart, he says. "You've just got to trust me on this. All I know is God brought me through this."

"The Only Thing"s primary subject is death, but in the middle of the song, as Carrie speaks the words of release and the music signifies that release, Sufjan cleverly switches the kind of death he will go through. The first half of the song is a very real contemplation of physical death through suicide. The second half of the song consists of a metaphysical death, a kind of dying to his past. Perhaps referencing the myth of Oedipus but also the words of Jesus in Luke 9:57-62 and Matthew 5:29-30, Sufjan first asks someone to hold his head down till he drowns. Then he asks if he should tear his eyes, arms, or heart out, since all he sees and feels leads back to his mother and he can no longer live with that torment. At first glance it would appear the song has looped back on itself and Sufjan is once again thinking of killing himself, thus negating the hope found in the "save you from your sorrow" line. I would argue however, that what Sufjan wants to "drown" is the pain of his mother's absence and not his physical body. I would also argue, the heart nothwithstanding, that someone can live without their eyes and their arms. Sufjan is going to go on living physically, but what he can no longer bear is the constant reminder of his mother. Should he tear out his arms, eyes, and heart (ne emotions) so he does not have to live with the pain of his mother's absence? If he is not going to kill himself, then at least he can "kill" the memory of his mother.

But the one line "I want to save you from your sorrow" offers Sufjan the possibility of the deliverance he needs. It is his chance to break free, and the music at that point in the song indicates Sufjan just might have done so.

When listening to a Sufjan Stevens album there is one thing we must remember: Sufjan himself is the centerpiece of his work. So, while we might be tempted to think the central subjects of Carrie & Lowell are Sufjan, his mother, and their story together, in actuality the central subject and theme of the album is Sufjan's accounting of how he has dealt emotionally with an emotionally and physically absent mother, as a child and as an adult—both before and after her passing. Then, more generally, Carrie & Lowell could be said to only be about one thing (and it is not his mother, though she is the main factor in his struggle in attaining this One Thing): Sufjan's search for human intimacy, his longing to know, touch, and be loved by another, expressed most potently in the lines "I just wanted to be near you" ("Eugene") and "For my prayer has always been love" ("Drawn to the Blood"). 

Sufjan's biggest self revelation is therefore expressed not in the two previous songs focused on in this article ("Should Have Known Better" and "The Only Thing"), but instead in "Blue Bucket of Gold", specifically with these words: "Or raise your red flag, just when I want you in my life." Though it might be too late for Sufjan to ever get his lover back ("Friend, why won't you love me?"), he now knows he is ready to have that person in his life. Finally, he is learning to disarm every defense mechanism he has erected to keep people emotionally distant his whole life. He is finally ready to let people in, even if he has to move on to someone else and start anew.

The "musical victories" that precede the self-revelation on "Blue Bucket of Gold" capture the moments which catapulted him towards that revelation. In order to begin being open to other people he had to first move past his self-hate and self-destruction ("The Only Thing") and he then had to move past the regrets and what-ifs and voids left from his relationship to Carrie ("Should Have Known Better"). The music on "Blue Bucket of Gold" as well as on Carrie & Lowell as a whole (being the last song on the album), ends with a drawn-out song-capping instrumental (a device Sufjan uses throughout the album). As Sufjan describes it in an interview with Double J radio, this instrumental is a bit of a sendoff for his mother: "I didn't know (my mom) well in a lot of ways and I didn't know how to say goodbye on the last track with articulation. So I quit playing piano and vocals and just stopped. I wanted to surrender her to the beyond with noises that sound bigger than just me." 

Though more subtle than the other two musical "victories" on the album, the end of "Blue Bucket of Gold" signifies a final shift within Sufjan: through decisively letting go of Carrie he is now able to move on with his life. In bringing his ten song lament of her to a close he opens himself up to a new way of life, a new way of being Sufjan. This newness is not captured musically on the album, but as listeners we are left in a state of expectant and ongoing possibility as the final song on Carrie & Lowell comes to a close. The album closes with a musical question: What is next for Sufjan? The answer, if it ever comes, is something we will have to wait for. Sometimes, you just have to submit yourself to Sufjan's timing.

You can stream the songs mentioned in this article on Sufjan's Bandcamp page: http://music.sufjan.com/album/carrie-lowell or on his Youtube playlist

Other Sufjan Related Articles:
Album Review: Carrie & Lowell is a Minor Sufjan Stevens Album (and that's a good thing)
Unanswerable Questions 3b: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell
Reminder: I Still Hate Sufjan Stevens
An Amazing List of Unreleased Sufjan Songs

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