When I first listened to Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, I thought it beautiful. At second listen, I found it frightening. I now find myself unable to stop listening. Stevens has a gift for gorgeous melodies, and in his work he often romanticizes the world and reveals beauty.
In this interview, he explains,
I’m prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often it’s not faith to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest. But it’s all an attempt to extract meaning, and ultimately that’s what I’m in pursuit of, like, What’s the significance of these experiences?
There can be a dark side to his method. In the past he has waxed eloquent, for instance, of serial killers and cancer victims. Sometimes, we want so desperately to find meaning that we struggle to admit that not everything in life has one. There are times when sin and chaos so overwhelm us that there is nothing to be found but pain and suffering. If there is meaning to be found, it must lie beyond this life.
In his new album Stevens confronts the death of his mother, Carrie, and attempts to find meaning. His mother abandoned the family when he was only 1 year old and their relationship was ever after, well, complicated. The poetry in the songs is so personal and raw that it almost feels voyeuristic to be listening in, and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to write this review because it seemed somehow invasive, and yet, the artist himself has polished these tunes and invited us to take the journey with him. After spending a lot of time with the songs, I have to agree that there is plenty of meaning to be found. So, here goes…
Art has the power to make a universal out of particulars, to climb the ladder from limited, personal experience up to profound insight concerning fundamental truths about God and nature. If we are attempting to ascend closer so as to gain a whisper of a heavenly refrain, it is music such what Stevens has made that forms the rungs on the ladder.
Let’s listen closely to a few, specific songs.
Fourth of July
At first listen, this is a sweet tune. Stevens has always had a gift for melodies so catchy that they border on twee, but after living with the song for a while the bitter begins to seep in. There is a gentle pulse in the instrumentation along with slowly changing synths. The sound brings to mind cherubs lazing about on heavenly clouds. But if this is a pulse, after a while it becomes awfully insistent. The recognition eventually dawns that, if it represents a heartbeat, it is not gentle at all. Rather, the pulse is elevated, a sure sign of stress.
We struggle to come to terms with death. In one sense it is a natural end to our time here and it deserves a lullaby, as if we are putting a dear loved one to bed for the night. We may miss them terribly but everything will be alright. On the other hand, death is and always will be an affront to the dignity of human nature. It is disorienting, frightening, and unnecessary. It runs counter to the eternal soul and is a sign of brokenness. What has gone wrong? How do we fix it?
The evil it spread like a fever ahead
It was night when you died, my firefly
What could I have said to raise you from the dead?
Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?
There is no escape, nothing we can do or say to avoid death, no way to become the atmosphere by which another continues to breathe deeply and shine brightly.
The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?
Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light
I don’t quite know how to comment on these verses, they are melancholic and tender and haunting all at the same time. I’ve written and erased a few different attempts and officially declare that I give up. Let’s be content to allow them to stand as their own heartbreaking tribute to a man’s mother.
The Only Thing
The death of another brings about thoughts of one’s own mortality. We all end someday, so how do we come to terms?
The only thing that keeps me from driving this car
Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night
Signs and wonders: Perseus aligned with the skull
Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all
There is a world beyond this one, sparingly glimpsed through signs and wonders, and yes, even death. In the mystery of human solidarity is the dawning realization that these miracles are part of who we are. Sometimes, it is almost too much too bear.
Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow
We wish to save our beloved, to protect them, and yet we cannot. Instead we dolefully gaze at that which reminds us, we are haunted by memories long past and yet somehow present. It is the nearness that we still feel that makes the pain so acute. Like a limb that has been removed that is still felt, it is never truly gone. We are part of each other, and when one sorrows, all sorrow.
When it is your own mother you wish to save, I imagine that the grief is all the worse. It is the final alienation of the nurturing, creative life-giver. If she can die, so can we all. This doesn’t rest easy with me. Not at all. It is a counter-sign that puts humanity at odds with ourselves; we refuse to accept that this is the true destiny of any person, to die and disappear, let alone a mother! She, of all other creatures, will not suffer such a fate.
So we mythologize the Mother, search for her in the midst of a world that is slowly but inexorably wearing itself out. Stevens seems to have no answer and knows that behind his carefully constructed fable the truth is often far more complex. He wants to immortalize his mother, to honor her, and yet he cannot help but show the scars of their actual relationship while she was alive. She “tired old mare”, and he was “afraid to be near you.” In spite of these flaws, he sings “I forgive you, Mother”, a name he admits he never actually used for her when she was alive. In death, perhaps it becomes more clear than ever that the sacrifices parents make overwhelms their shortcomings. The sacrifice overcomes all. The gift of life is supreme. Stevens himself says that “Parenthood is a profound sacrifice”. It is a sacred, priestly act. The Church goes so far as to say that it is a Vocation; the father a domestic priest and the mother an icon of the Blessed Virgin.
Is there meaning in the death of the Mother? Can it be anything other than pure, unmitigated loss? If not, it is surely an act of desperation to attempt to make it so. It seems to me that there is only one possible way to bring the universalizing quality of art to the grief of losing a mother, as in, my own mother, in such a way that it participates in beauty and thus in goodness—to situate it in the context of a truly universal Mother. If each of us has our own, natural mother, we also share one, single Mother in the order of grace, Our Lady the Church, exemplified by the Blessed Virgin who, by mothering the God-become-Man has become Mother of us all. It is the Blessed Virgin who willingly enters dormition out of love for her children, the result of which is that she is now resplendent in heaven mediating for her children. Her suffering is a form of love, and her death a transformation so that she might watch over her children more closely. She stands death on its head, voluntarily accepting it so as to emerge on the other side victorious.
If I may be indulged to create my own fable, the sorrow that I hear in Carrie and Lowell is a searching glance to Our Lady of Sorrows. Stevens doesn’t intend this (I don’t think), and to the extent that he doesn’t see her clearly there is confusion and despair in his work. How wonderful for us all that a mother does not require perfection from her children before she loves them.